What to Know About Being a Physician Assistant


Updated October 11, 2023

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Physician assistants practice medicine in collaboration with physicians, surgeons, nurses, and other healthcare providers. The average physician assistant salary exceeds $108,000 a year, with strong projected job growth through 2028.

Essential Career Information for Physician Assistants
Median Annual Salary $108,610
Employment Growth Forecast from 2018-2028 31%
Number of New Jobs from 2018-2028 37,000
Average Entry-Level Education Requirements Master's Degree
Annual Salary of the Highest 10% $151,850
Annual Salary of the Lowest 10% $69,120

Source: BLS.gov: OOH, May 2018

What is a Physician Assistant?

A physician assistant is a healthcare professional who examines, diagnoses, and treats patients. Also called a PA, physician assistants interpret medical tests and examinations to diagnose patient illnesses and injuries. They can provide medical treatment and prescribe medication under physician supervision. Physician assistants may specialize in an area like family medicine, pediatrics, or emergency medicine.

A physician assistant is a healthcare professional who examines, diagnoses, and treats patients.

Most physician assistants work in doctors' offices, though many also work in hospitals and outpatient care centers. Physician assistants often work irregular hours, including nights, weekends, and holidays. They may also work on call. Outside of treating patients, some physician assistants work in educational services, training other physician assistants or providing wellness and health counseling.

Physician assistants typically hold a master's degree and a state license. During a graduate program, physician assistants gain clinical experience and complete coursework on topics like anatomy, physiology, and physical diagnosis. Physician assistants must hold an accredited master's degree from a physician assistant program and pass a national certifying exam to earn licensure.

Alternate Job Titles for Physician Assistants

  • Anesthesiologist Assistant
  • Certified Physician's Assistant
  • Family Practice Physician Assistant
  • Orthopaedic Physician Assistant
  • Orthopedic Physician Assistant
  • Pediatric Physician Assistant
  • Radiology Practitioner Assistant
  • Surgical Physician Assistant

What Does a Physician Assistant Do?

Physician assistants provide primary and specialized medical care for patients. They practice medicine in concert with physicians, surgeons, and other medical professionals. When treating patients, physician assistants review medical histories, conduct physical examinations, and use diagnostic testing to assess patient conditions. They also treat patients and prescribe medications. Most physician assistants work in doctors' offices or hospitals; however, they may also visit nursing homes or make house calls to treat patients.

Physician assistants typically specialize in an area of medicine during their master's degree and clinical training. Some physician assistants work in primary care and family medicine, offering preventative care and treating common medical conditions. They may also specialize in emergency medicine and work in acute care, urgent care, or ER facilities.

A surgical physician assistant works with surgeons during operations. They care for patients before, during, and after a surgical procedure. Pediatric physician assistants treat children, offering wellness examinations and administering vaccinations. An anesthesiologist assistant works under a licensed anesthesiologist to administer anesthesia and develop care plans to ensure patient safety.

Physician Assistant vs. Nurse Practitioner

Both physician assistants and nurse practitioners need a master's degree, offer primary care services, and prescribe medication. They also earn similar average salaries.

Physician assistants and nurse practitioners have different training backgrounds, however. Physician assistants study in the medical school tradition, and their training aligns more closely with that of medical doctors. Nurse practitioners follow the patient-centered philosophy of the nursing tradition, which informs their training.

Physician Assistant vs. Doctor

Both physician assistants and medical doctors treat patients, prescribe medication, and offer primary and specialty care services. Physician assistants work under the supervision of a doctor, who receives additional training.

While a physician assistant holds a master's degree, a medical doctor earns a doctor of medicine, which includes four years of medical school followed by 3-7 years of fellowship training. Medical doctors operate independently, often taking a supervisory role with physician assistants.

How to Become a Physician Assistant

Physician assistants need an accredited master's degree from a physician assistant program and a state license to practice. Before entering a master's program, prospective physician assistants need a bachelor's degree. Many master's programs set prerequisite coursework in the sciences, so a science or healthcare major helps applicants prepare for graduate school.

Many prospective physician assistants also acquire clinical experience before enrolling in a master's program. Physician assistants can work as a registered nurse, paramedic, or EMT to gain clinical experience.

Prospective students should choose an accredited program to meet licensing requirements. The Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, Inc. accredits physician assistant master's programs. During a master's program, students complete classes in human anatomy, clinical medicine, and medical ethics. They also meet clinical training requirements. Most master's programs take two years to complete.

Master's students can specialize their training to work as a family practice physician assistant, orthopedic physician assistant, pediatric physician assistant, or in other specializations. After earning their degree and passing a national examination, physician assistants can practice medicine. Physician assistants can also voluntarily pursue certification to demonstrate their expertise in a specialty.

Bachelor's Degree Programs

A bachelor's degree represents the first step to becoming a physician assistant. Applicants must meet undergraduate coursework prerequisites in disciplines like chemistry, biology, and physiology before applying to a master's program. Prospective physician assistants can pursue a pre-med degree to meet these requirements.

Prospective physician assistants can gain clinical experience during their undergraduate education. Earning a bachelor of science in nursing, for example, builds clinical and patient care skills. A bachelor's degree generally takes four years for full-time students to complete.

Master's Degree Programs

A master's degree represents the entry-level education requirement for physician assistant jobs. During physician assistant programs, students take classes on topics like pharmacology, pathophysiology, physical diagnosis, and clinical laboratory science. Most programs also incorporate classes in medical ethics.

Additionally, students complete over 2,000 hours of clinical rotations. During this clinical training, students learn about family medicine, internal medicine, surgery, and emergency medicine. This clinical training prepares graduates for specialized career paths. An accredited physician assistant master's program generally takes 2-3 years for full-time students to complete. Most programs require a bachelor's degree, science prerequisites, and patient care experience for admission.

Professional Licensing and Certification for Physician Assistants

In every state, physician assistants must hold a professional license to practice. After earning a master's from an accredited physician assistant program, candidates must pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE). The National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants offers the exam and grants certification to candidates who pass.

After passing the PANCE, physician assistants can work under the title of certified physician assistant. Physician assistants must maintain their credentials by meeting continuing education requirements every two years. Every 10 years, certified physician assistants must retake the exam.

Frequently Asked Questions

What jobs can you get with a physician assistant degree?

Graduates with a physician assistant master's degree can work as physician assistants. Common titles include family practice physician assistant, pediatric physician assistant, and surgical physician assistant.

Is there a demand for physician assistants?

Yes; the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects jobs for physician assistants to grow 31% through 2028, which is much higher than the national average for all occupations.

How can you become a physician's assistant?

Physician assistants must complete a master's program and earn a state license to practice.

Is a physician assistant above a nurse practitioner?

Both physician assistants and nurse practitioners can provide primary care services. They also both need a master's degree to practice. However, physician assistants train in a program that draws on the medical school tradition, while nurse practitioners' training stems from the nursing tradition.

Is a physician assistant as good as a doctor?

A licensed physician assistant can examine, diagnose, and treat patients, but they must do so under the supervision of a physician as physicians receive more extensive training.

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