When the role of the physician associate (f.k.a. physician assistant) was invented in the 1960s, it was intended to counteract a shortage of doctors. Now, with the Baby Boomers retiring, there’s a new shortage in medical care providers on the horizon. That’s one of the reasons why the need for physician associates is forecast to grow 31 percent nationally between 2018 and 2028 (Bureau of Labor Statistics)—a rate nearly five times the national average for all professions.
Physician associates perform many of the same tasks that doctors do: they diagnose illnesses, prescribe medicine, order tests, and consult on preventative care. While it takes many years of study and training to become a physician associate, it’s still not quite as long as it takes to become a doctor. Physician associates are trained to be front-line care providers who can flex into positions where they’re needed the most, like rural areas or underserved communities. They provide much-needed expertise and services to counteract the retirement of the largest generation in history.
It’s not easy to become a physician associate, but it is rewarding. On top of an inviting job market, physician associates can expect a strong salary potential: the average PA makes over $100,000 per year. But it’s not just about the monetary rewards. Physician associates often have more personal interactions with patients and can be more flexible in their specialties later in their career.
If you’re interested in a career with a bright job outlook, a large salary, and a positive impact on society, read on. You might be a physician associate in the making.
Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming a Physician Associate / Assistant
Step One: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree (Four Years)
After graduating from high school, aspiring physician associates will need to earn a bachelor’s degree. While there is a range of major options available to physician associates, it’s critical to select a curriculum that includes courses in anatomy, biology, chemistry, microbiology, and physiology.
Admissions requirements will vary from school to school, but generally include some combination of the following: a competitive high school GPA (3.0 or greater); SAT and/or ACT scores; letter(s) of recommendation; and a personal statement.
Arizona State University has a hybrid bachelor of science (BS) in biochemistry program that fulfills many of a PA school’s prerequisite coursework requirements. Other than the in-person organic chemistry and biochemistry labs, the curriculum may be completed entirely online. Coursework includes topics such as physical chemistry with a biological focus; biophysical chemistry; general biology; and physics. The program consists of 120 credits and costs approximately $573 per credit.
The University of California, Irvine has an on-campus bachelor of science in biochemistry and molecular biology program that’s designed for students who want to pursue advanced degrees.
The curriculum emphasizes laboratory experience and its integration with basic theory. Classes include the following topics: advanced biochemistry; advanced molecular biology; molecular pharmacology; physical biochemistry; and immunology. The program consists of 180 credits and costs approximately $41,196 per year for non-residents.
Step Two: Obtain Healthcare Experience (Two Years or More)
In order to be admitted to PA school (see step three below), aspiring physician associates will first need to obtain at least 1,000 hours of hands-on healthcare experience. This may be pursued concurrently with an undergraduate program or upon graduation. Physician associates can accrue this experience working as an EMT, a paramedic, a lab assistant, or a medical assistant. This step is a requirement for admission to PA school, but it’s also a way to gain the sort of hands-on experience necessary to choose which area of medicine to specialize in.
Step Three: Earn a Master’s Degree (Two or Three Years)
After earning a bachelor’s degree and obtaining some healthcare experience, aspiring physician associates will need to earn a master’s degree at a PA school accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physical Assistant (ARC-PA).
Admissions requirements will vary from school to school, but generally include a competitive undergraduate GPA (3.0 or greater); 1,000 hours or more of relevant healthcare experience; GRE or MCAT scores; letter(s) of recommendation; and a personal statement. Do note that some schools require students to apply through the Central Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA), which represents 95 percent of currently accredited PA programs.
Due to the hands-on nature of clinical rotations and lab work, there aren’t many purely online PA schools, but the program at Yale School of Medicine comes close. Other than three on-campus immersions, students can earn their master of medical science (MMSc) degree without having to relocate themselves. Clinical rotations can be performed at a site close to the student, selected in collaboration with a placement team from Yale. Didactic coursework follows an organ-based approach, where each topic is considered through the lens of a specific biological system. The program takes 28 months to complete, and costs $101,080 in total.
It’s much more common to have hybrid PA programs, like the one at the University of North Dakota. The curriculum, which culminates in a master of physician assistant studies (MPAS) degree, focuses on providing care in rural or underserved communities, and, as such, much of the coursework is available online. Still, students will need to commute to the Grand Forks campus for some classes and in-person clinical experiences. The program takes two years to complete and costs approximately $30,609 per year.
Step Four: Get Certified & Licensed (Timeline Varies)
After graduating from PA school, a physician associate will need to be certified and licensed in order to practice. Certification is achieved through passing the 300-question Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE), administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA).
Eligibility requirements include a master’s degree from an ARC-PA accredited school. Once the exam is passed, a physician associate is eligible to use the title of Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C).
Licensure is issued by the state in which a physician assistant intends to practice. Each state has its own regulations and processes relating to licensure. The American Academy of Physician Associates (AAPA) website has information as it relates to each state’s particular rules and regulations.
Step Five: Maintain Credentials (Every Two Years)
To recertify with the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA), physician associates will need to complete 100 hours of continuing medical education (CME) every two years, and take a recertification exam every ten years.
Requirements to maintain state licenses vary by state. Check out the AAPA website for details.
Helpful Resources for Physician Associates (Assistants)
Physician associates are trained to be collaborative, and that extends beyond the workplace. If you’re interested in learning more about the state of this profession, check out some of the resources below.
- American Academy of Physician Associates (AAPA)
- National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA)
- Accreditation Review Commission on Education for Physician Assistants (ARC-PA)
- Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA)
Matt Zbrog is a writer and researcher from Southern California. Since 2018, he’s written extensively about trends within the healthcare workforce, with a particular focus on the power of interdisciplinary teams. He’s also covered the crises faced by healthcare professionals working at assisted living and long-term care facilities, both in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and the demographic shift brought on by the aging of the Baby Boomers. His work has included detailed interviews and consultations with leaders and subject matter experts from the American Nurses Association (ASCA), the American College of Health Care Administrators (ACHCA), and the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA).