Physician Assistant (PA)

There’s never been a better time to become a physician assistant. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (2019) projects that job openings in this profession will swell 31 percent between 2018 and 2028—a rate that’s faster than almost every other profession. At the same time, the average physician assistant earns over $100,000 a year. So what’s the catch?

Don’t let the word “assistant” fool you. Physician assistants perform many of the same tasks that doctors do: examining patients, diagnosing illnesses, ordering tests, and prescribing medicine. They work in every type of medical setting, with every type of specialty. But compared to medical doctors, physician assistants finish school faster, get to work sooner, and often have more personal interactions with their patients. Furthermore, it’s easier for a physician assistant to add a specialty, or switch specialties, in the course of their career.

This is not an easy profession to enter into, nor is it an easy job to perform. Given the stakes and the responsibility this entails, physician assistants need to complete a rigorous education and meet certain licensure requirements in order to practice. It can take up to ten years of schooling and work experience to become a physician assistant. But for those who make it, the rewards are a strong job market, a handsome salary, and the satisfaction of making a difference.

If you’re interested in becoming a physician assistant, read on to get the details.

Physician Assistant Specializations & Degree Types

The majority of physician assistants earn a bachelor’s degree first. While there is some flexibility in choice of major, prerequisite coursework should include the study of anatomy, biology, chemistry, microbiology, and physiology.

After completing prerequisite coursework, physician assistants will need to attend a physician assistant (PA) school. These programs culminate in a master’s degree: either a master’s of physician assistant studies (MPAS), a master’s of health services (MHS), or a master’s of medical science (MMSc). These degree programs take two to three years to complete.

Specializations for physician assistants can range widely across the spectrum of care, from pediatrics to internal medicine to orthopedics and surgery. They may also focus on a particular patient population, such as women’s health or rural care.

Admissions Requirements for Physician Assistant Programs

At the undergraduate level, admissions requirements often include some combination of the following: a competitive (3.0 or greater) high school GPA; ACT and/or SAT scores; letter(s) of recommendation; and a personal statement.

Admissions requirements for PA school are much more strict. Applicants will often need the following: a bachelor’s degree with common prerequisite courses; a competitive (3.0 or greater) undergraduate GPA; GRE or MCAT scores; at least 1,000 hours of healthcare experience; letter(s) of recommendation; and a personal statement.

Do note that many PA schools require potential students to apply through the Central Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA), which represents 95 percent of currently accredited PA programs.

Physician Assistant Program Accreditation

Students enrolling in academic programs should pay close attention to a school’s accreditation status. Accreditation ensures that a school is meeting a set of peer-reviewed standards in its curriculum.

At the undergraduate level, regional accreditation is generally accepted. A full list of regional accreditation entities is available on the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) website.

For the graduate-level PA schools, accreditation by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physical Assistant (ARC-PA) is critical, and degrees from schools without this accreditation are not valid for certification and state licensure requirements.

On-Campus Physician Assistant Degree Programs

Duke University

Duke’s physician assistant program, which culminates in a master of health sciences degree, is ranked by US News & World Report (2019) as the best in the nation. The first year is dedicated to preclinical study and includes instruction in anatomy; physiology; pharmacology, diagnostic methods; and clinical medicine. During the second year of the program, students complete ten clinical rotations, which cover internal medicine, primary care, pediatrics, and general surgery among other areas. The program consists of 109 credits in total.

  • Location: Durham, NC
  • Duration: Two to three years
  • Accreditation: ARC-PA
  • Tuition: $43,518 per year

University of Colorado

The University of Colorado’s PA program, which confers a professional master’s degree (MPAS), is consistently ranked as one of the best in the country. The spiral-designed curriculum progresses from foundational concepts to more complex topics and skills as students develop.

Courses cover areas such as pharmacology, immunology, applied behavioral medicine, and problem-based clinical reasoning. Clinical rotations, which begin in the second year and progress into the third, include a diverse range of foci, including ambulatory pediatrics, inpatient medicine, women’s health, and surgery. Students may specialize in one of three tracks: the rural track, the global health track, or the pediatric critical and acute care longitudinal experience.

  • Location: Aurora, CO
  • Duration: Three years
  • Accreditation: ARC-PA
  • Tuition: $119,016 in total for non-residents

Online Physician Assistant Degree Programs

Arizona State University (Pre-PA School Online Bachelor’s Degree)

Aspiring physician assistants looking to get their undergraduate degree can apply to Arizona State University’s online bachelor of science in biological sciences program. The curriculum aligns with the scientific competencies recommended for premedical students, and includes all chemistry, biochemistry, math, and physics courses necessary for medical school and graduate biology programs. Do note that students may be required to either attend on-campus labs or fulfill the requirement via transfer credits. The program consists of 120 credits in total.

  • Location: Tempe, AZ
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: NCASC
  • Tuition: $573 per credit

Yale School of Medicine

Yale School of Medicine has one of the only purely online PA programs in the country, culminating in a master of medical science (MMSc) degree. Outside of three immersions on the Yale campus, students can earn the entirety of their degree without relocating. Online coursework takes an organ system approach, with each topic considered through the lens of a specific biological system. In-person clinical rotations take place at sites in or as close to a student’s home community as possible, with site selections done in collaboration with a Yale placement team.

  • Location: New Haven, CT
  • Duration: 28 months
  • Accreditation: ARC-PA
  • Tuition: $101,080 (total)

University of North Dakota

The University of North Dakota offers a hybrid PA program that culminates in a master of physician assistant studies (MPAS) degree. The curriculum contains blended coursework that alternates between online and on-campus classes and in-person clinical experiences. The program takes an interdisciplinary approach, with an emphasis on care in rural and underserved communities.

Classes cover areas such as: human physiology and pathophysiology; pharmacology; clinical medicine; diagnostic studies; and professional issues and role development. Clinical rotations operate on a flexible schedule and emphasize comprehensive primary care medicine.

  • Location: Grand Forks, ND
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: ARC-PA
  • Tuition: $10,203 per term for non-residents

How Long Does It Take to Become a Physician Assistant?

Generally speaking, physician assistants will need a four-year bachelor’s degree, three years of healthcare experience, and a two-to-three-year degree from PA school. But some physician assistants complete their work experience concurrently with their bachelor’s degree and others pursue accelerated undergraduate programs.

Allowing for this flexibility, becoming a physician assistant can take anywhere from seven to ten years after high school.

How to Become a Physician Assistant – Step-by-Step Guide

Step One: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree (Four Years)

After graduating from high school, aspiring physician assistants need to earn a bachelor’s degree. While there is flexibility in what one may choose to major in, a strong courseload in the basic, behavioral, and biological sciences is necessary. Having a solid background in chemistry, physiology, anatomy, microbiology, and biology is especially vital.

Step Two: Obtain Healthcare Experience (Three Years)

Entry into PA school (see step three below) is competitive, and many programs require hands-on patient care or other healthcare experience. Most applicants usually have three years of such experience before attending PA school. This experience can come in many forms, including work as a medical assistant, an EMT, a paramedic, or a lab assistant.

Step Three: Earn a Master’s Degree (Two Years)

Physician assistants need to attend an accredited PA school, where students receive classroom instruction in anatomy, biology, pharmacology, and more. These programs award master’s degrees, and they usually last two to three years. They also include over 2,000 hours of clinical rotations, with an emphasis on primary care in ambulatory clinics, physician offices, and acute or long-term care facilities.

Step Four: Become Certified (Less Than One Year)

Once all other criteria have been met, a physician assistant needs to take the 300-question Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE), which is administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). Once the exam is passed, a physician assistant is eligible to use the title of Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C).

Step Five: Obtain State Licensure (Less Than One Year)

Before a physician assistant is able to practice, they need to get licensed in their state. Each state has its own regulatory requirements and licensing processes. You can find more resources about your state on the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) website.

Step Six: Maintain Certification with Continuing Education (Every Two Years)

In order to ensure they are continually meeting industry standards, physician assistants will need to maintain their certifications by completing 100 hours of continuing medical education (CME) every two years. They’ll also need to take the Physician Assistant National Recertification Exam (PANRE) every ten years.

What Do Physician Assistants Do?

The typical duties of a physician assistant will vary based on where they work, their level of experience, and their specialty, but may include:

  • Assisting in surgery
  • Prescribing medication
  • Developing treatment plans
  • Conducting physical exams
  • Taking medical histories
  • Ordering and interpreting tests
  • Counseling on preventative care
  • Doing clinical research

Physician Assistant Certifications & Licensure

Physician assistants need to be both certified and licensed in order to practice. Certification is achieved through passing the PANCE. Physician assistants must recertify every two years through completing 100 hours of CME, and then every ten years by passing a recertification exam. Licensure is provided through state entities, each of which has their own rules and regulations for physician assistants to be able to practice.

Physician Assistant Salary

While it varies based on location, specialty, and level of experience, physician assistants enjoy a salary that’s far above the national average for all professions.

For the 114,710 physician assistants currently working in the US, the average salary is $108,430 per year, according to the BLS (2018). To break that down further, the bottom 10 percent of physician assistants make $69,120 (or less) per year, while the top 10 percent make $151,850 (or more) per year. The median salary (i.e., the 50 percent mark of all physician assistants) is $108,610 per year.

Matt Zbrog

Matt Zbrog

Writer

Matt is a writer and researcher from Southern California. He’s been living abroad since 2016. Long spells in Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and Latin America have made the global mindset a core tenet of his perspective. From conceptual art in Los Angeles, to NGO work on the front lines of Eastern Ukraine, to counterculture protests in the Southern Caucasus, Matt’s writing subjects are all over the map, and so is he.

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