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How to Become a Physician Assistant

By Ibrahim Okunade

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For those drawn to the world of healthcare, the role of a physician assistant is an inviting opportunity. A physician assistant, sometimes simply referred to as a PA, seamlessly blends medical expertise with empathetic patient care, making them integral to modern healthcare teams. If you’re considering this career path, this is the guide for you!

Career Summary

Physician Assistant Salary

Physician Assistant Salary

Physician assistants earn salaries that reflect their essential role in healthcare. Compensation varies based on factors like specialization, experience, and location.

Below is a breakdown of physician assistant salary in the United States:

  • Entry Salary (US$104k)
  • Median Salary (US$134k)
  • Executive Salary (US$172k)

Overall, the annual physician assistant salary is considered high when compared to the $61,900 national average salary for all occupations in the United States.

What is a PA?

A physician assistant is a healthcare professional who is trained to provide a wide range of medical care under the supervision of a physician. PAs diagnose and treat patients, order and interpret tests, and prescribe medications. They can work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, clinics, and private practices.

Physician Assistant Career Progression

  • Entry-Level Physician Assistant (PA-C): Begin your career as a certified physician assistant (PA-C) after completing your education, clinical training, and passing the PANCE exam. Work under the supervision of physicians and collaborate within the healthcare team.
  • Early Career PA: Gain practical experience and refine clinical skills as you continue working in your chosen medical specialty. Seek mentorship from experienced colleagues to enhance your expertise.
  • Mid-Career PA: With several years of experience, consider specializing in a specific medical field if desired. Take on more complex cases, contribute to treatment planning, and provide guidance to newer PAs.
  • Senior PA: As your experience grows, assume leadership roles within your healthcare team. Mentor and guide junior PAs, contribute to quality improvement initiatives and possibly participate in research projects.
  • Lead PA or Chief PA: Progress into administrative roles, overseeing teams of PAs and collaborating with healthcare management. Your responsibilities might include staffing, training, and ensuring effective patient care delivery.
Physician Assistant Career Progression

Pros:

  • PAs provide hands-on medical care, impacting patients’ lives directly.
  • Physician assistants are in high demand, offering job security and opportunities.
  • Physician assistants typically have a good work-life balance.
  • They can choose from various medical specialties, allowing them to pursue areas that align with their interests and passions.
  • PAs earn competitive salaries.

Cons:

  • PAs might have to cope with difficult patient outcomes, which can be emotionally challenging.
  • They have limited decision-making authority compared to physicians.
  • While the work-life balance is generally good, PAs can experience burnout.
  • They sometimes encounter difficult or uncooperative patients.
  • Some specialties or settings might require PAs to work long shifts, weekends, and holidays.

Useful Skills to Have as a Physician Assistant

  • Medical Knowledge and Clinical Skills
  • Communication
  • Empathy
  • Attention to Detail
  • Time Management
  • Adaptability
  • Cultural Competence
  • Ability to Work Under Pressure

Popular Physician Assistant Specialties

  • Emergency Medicine
  • Orthopedics
  • Pediatrics
  • Cardiology
  • Surgery
  • Family Medicine
  • Obstetrics and Gynecology
  • Internal Medicine

How to become a Physician Assistant

Physician Assistant 5 Steps to Career

Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

Your physician assistant journey starts with earning a bachelor’s degree. Most physician assistant programs require applicants to have a bachelor’s degree in a science-related field, such as biology, chemistry, or psychology. This educational foundation not only provides you with a strong understanding of fundamental scientific principles but also helps you develop critical thinking and analytical skills that are essential for success in a healthcare career.

During your bachelor’s degree studies, it’s advisable to focus on completing prerequisite courses that are commonly required for admission to PA programs. These courses often include biology, chemistry (including organic and inorganic chemistry), anatomy, physiology, microbiology, and psychology. A well-rounded understanding of these subjects will prepare you for the rigorous curriculum of PA programs and demonstrate your academic competence to admissions committees.

Gain Practical Experience

In addition to a bachelor’s degree, PA programs expect applicants to acquire between 1,000 to 4,000 hours of practical clinical experience within a healthcare setting. This is why prospective physician assistants are advised to obtain a bachelor’s degree in a healthcare program that makes them suitable for different roles in healthcare settings.

This engagement, which can involve volunteering, internships, or paid positions, offers exposure to the healthcare environment, fosters patient interaction skills, deepens medical knowledge, and nurtures decision-making abilities. These experiences not only bolster applications but also equip aspiring physician assistants with the real-world insights necessary for success in their roles.

What Are Internship Opportunities for a Prospective Physician Assistant?

Internship opportunities for individuals aspiring to become physician assistants (PAs) before attending a PA program can be valuable in gaining relevant experience and strengthening their application.

While formal “internship” programs specifically designed for pre-PA students might be less common, there are several types of experiences that can serve as valuable internships or equivalents:

  • Medical Assistant or Clinical Aide: Working as a medical assistant or clinical aide in a healthcare setting provides hands-on exposure to patient care. You’ll assist with tasks like taking vitals, preparing patients for exams, and documenting medical histories.
  • Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) or Paramedic: EMTs and paramedics respond to emergencies and provide pre-hospital care. This role offers experience in critical care situations and enhances your ability to manage urgent medical cases.
  • Nurse’s Aide or Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA): Working as a nurse’s aide or CNA in a hospital or long-term care facility exposes you to patient care routines, patient hygiene, and communication skills.
  • Medical Scribe: Medical scribes assist physicians with documenting patient encounters in real time. This role provides insight into medical charting, terminology, and patient-provider interaction.
  • Phlebotomist: Phlebotomists draw blood for testing, gaining exposure to laboratory procedures and patient interaction.
  • Research Assistant: Participating in medical research projects can enhance your understanding of scientific methodologies and medical literature, which are valuable skills for a PA.
  • Shadowing Physicians or PAs: While not exactly an internship, shadowing experienced physicians or PAs allows you to observe patient care, procedures, and medical decision-making firsthand.
  • Community Health Outreach or Clinic Volunteer: Volunteering in community health programs or clinics gives you the opportunity to engage with underserved populations, contribute to health education efforts, and develop your interpersonal skills.
  • Medical Mission or Global Health Volunteer: Participating in medical missions or volunteering in global health initiatives provides unique exposure to healthcare challenges in different cultural contexts.

When seeking these opportunities, focus on positions that involve direct patient interaction and exposure to medical procedures. While the specific title might vary, the goal is to gain hands-on experience in healthcare settings that align with the skills and responsibilities of a physician assistant.

Apply to PA Programs

The next step is to apply to PA programs. Begin by researching programs that align with your aspirations. Delve into their prerequisites, GPA standards, and application timelines.

You may have to apply through the Centralized Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA) for programs that participate in CASPA. For programs that don’t participate in CASPA, you have to apply through their individual websites.

Create an account on CASPA or program-specific portals. Collect essential documents like transcripts, letters of recommendation, a personal statement, and your resume. Make sure to request official transcripts from every institution you’ve attended, and seek strong recommendations that illustrate your skills and character.

Craft a persuasive personal statement that outlines your motivation and suitability for the program. Pay the application fee, and if necessary, tackle any additional essays that the program requires. Take ample time to meticulously review your application for coherency and accuracy before submitting it well ahead of the deadline.

After submission, CASPA will validate and distribute your application. Should you receive an interview invitation, prepare thoughtfully and attend as instructed. With the interviews complete, the anticipation begins as you await the decisions. Upon acceptance, thoughtfully weigh your options and make an informed decision about your future path.

If a deposit is required to secure your place, submit it within the stipulated timeframe. Throughout the application process, organization and diligence are key. By applying to multiple programs and presenting an application that truly reflects your passion and commitment, you enhance your chances of taking the first strides toward a fulfilling career as a physician assistant.

Complete Your PA Program

Physician Assistant programs typically span 2-3 years, leading to a master’s degree in Physician Assistant Studies (MPAS) or a similar field. The curriculum is a blend of classroom learning and practical clinical training.

The program’s first phase involves classroom instruction, where you’ll delve into subjects like anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, and medical ethics. This builds a solid foundation in medical knowledge and terminology. The core of the program lies in clinical rotations. Working under the guidance of experienced professionals, you’ll gain hands-on experience in various medical specialties such as internal medicine, surgery, and pediatrics. These rotations fine-tune your patient interaction skills, teach procedural competence, and hone your ability to collaborate within healthcare teams.

Throughout the program, you’ll be assessed through exams and evaluations to track your progress. Importantly, PA programs prepare you for the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE), which you must pass to gain certification and licensure. By the end of your program, you’ll possess the medical expertise, practical skills, and decision-making acumen needed to excel as a physician assistant, providing quality care across diverse medical scenarios.

How Much Do PA Programs Cost?

The cost of PA programs varies depending on the school and the program type. Public PA programs are typically less expensive than private PA programs. In addition, enrolling in a PA program in your home state could potentially reduce costs. On average, PA programs cost between $20,000 to $100,000 per year.

Can I Become a Physician Assistant Through Online Education?

Yes, you can become a physician assistant through online education. There are a number of accredited PA programs that offer online courses. However, it is important to note that not all PA programs are created equal. Some PA programs are fully online, while others offer a hybrid model that includes both online and in-person coursework.

Clinical rotations are a fundamental part of PA training. While online programs may offer flexibility for classroom coursework, you’ll likely need to complete clinical rotations in person to gain practical experience and exposure to patient care. Some programs allow you to complete clinical rotations in your local community.

It is important to choose a PA program that is accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). This is because accreditation is crucial for your eligibility to take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) and for obtaining licensure.

What are Some Web Resources to Learn Skills to Become a Physician Assistant?

As you advance in learning, you can take advantage of some web resources to enhance your learning and give you a better perspective.

  • Clinical Advisor: Offers clinical resources, guidelines, and tools for healthcare professionals, including those in training.
  • Medscape: The website provides medical news, clinical reference tools, and continuing medical education resources that are useful for healthcare professionals.
  • Radiopaedia: Radiopaedia is a peer-reviewed, open-edit educational radiology resource mainly compiled by radiologists and radiology trainees. You can get loads of radiology-related educational content there.
  • The Clinical Problem Solvers: The Clinical Problem Solvers (CPS) website is a valuable resource for medical professionals who want to improve their diagnostic reasoning skills. The website features a variety of resources, including videos and podcasts.
  • Physician Assistant Exam Review Podcast: The Physician Assistant Exam Review podcast is a great resource for aspiring physician assistants who are preparing for the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE). The podcast is hosted by Brian Wallace, a physician assistant who has extensive experience in teaching and preparing students for the PANCE.
  • Physician Assistant Forum: A platform where aspiring and current PAs discuss their experiences, share resources, and provide advice.

Remember to verify the credibility of any resource before using it for learning. These web resources can complement your studies and help you build a strong foundation as you work towards becoming a physician assistant.

What Skills Will I Learn as a Physician Assistant?

Physician assistants are critical parts of healthcare teams, equipped with a diverse skill set that enables them to provide comprehensive patient care. Throughout their training and practice, physician assistants acquire a range of skills that are crucial for delivering high-quality medical services.

  • Clinical Assessment and Diagnosis: Physician assistants develop the ability to conduct thorough patient assessments, including medical histories, physical exams, and diagnostic tests. They learn to identify symptoms, interpret test results, and formulate accurate diagnoses.
  • Treatment Planning: Physician assistants acquire skills in creating comprehensive treatment plans, including prescribing medications, ordering tests, and recommending therapies. They collaborate with supervising physicians to design effective care strategies.
  • Procedural Competence: Physician assistants learn to perform various medical procedures, such as suturing wounds, setting fractures, and assisting in surgeries. These practical skills are vital for immediate patient care and long-term recovery.
  • Communication and Patient Education: Effective communication is a cornerstone of patient care. Physician assistants learn to communicate clearly and empathetically with patients, ensuring they understand their conditions, treatment options, and post-care instructions.
  • Emergency Care: Physician assistants are trained to handle urgent and emergent situations. They learn to respond swiftly, stabilize patients, and make informed decisions during critical moments.
  • Collaboration and Teamwork: Physician assistants work closely with other healthcare professionals, including physicians, nurses, and specialists. They learn to collaborate seamlessly within multidisciplinary teams to provide comprehensive care.
  • Continuous Learning: Medicine is constantly evolving. Physician assistants develop the skill of staying updated with the latest medical advancements and evidence-based practices to provide the best possible care.
  • Cultural Competence: Sensitivity to cultural diversity is crucial in healthcare. Physician assistants learn to provide culturally competent care that respects patients’ backgrounds and beliefs.
  • Ethical Decision-Making: Ethics play a pivotal role in healthcare. Physician assistants develop skills in navigating ethical dilemmas and making morally sound decisions in patient care.

Pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE)

The Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam is a multiple-choice exam that tests the knowledge and skills of aspiring physician assistants. The National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) administers the exam. This exam assesses your medical knowledge and clinical skills to ensure you’re ready for safe and effective practice.

Once you’ve completed your accredited PA program, you’re eligible to take the PANCE. The exam covers various medical topics and scenarios, aiming to gauge your understanding and application of medical concepts. It’s computer-based and consists of 300 multiple-choice questions divided into five blocks over five hours. You have a total of 45 minutes allotted for breaks between blocks. Candidates writing the exam are responsible for how they manage their break time.

To prepare, review your PA program materials and use practice resources like textbooks and online question banks. After taking the PANCE, you’ll receive your results shortly. If you pass, you earn the title of Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C), an essential certification for practicing as a PA and obtaining state licensure. Passing the PANCE showcases your competence and dedication as a healthcare professional, demonstrating that you meet the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) standards.

Obtain a State Licence

Once you’ve successfully passed the PANCE and earned your PA-C designation, the next milestone is obtaining a state license. This license is essential for practicing as a physician assistant within a specific state. The process involves meeting the state’s requirements and obtaining authorization from the respective medical board.

To begin, research the licensing requirements of the state in which you intend to practice. Each state has its own set of criteria, which typically include submitting your PANCE scores, your PA-C certification, and completing an application. Be prepared to provide any necessary documentation and pay the required fees.

Once you obtain your license, you’ll need to fulfill the state’s continuing medical education (CME) requirements to maintain your licensure. This involves staying updated with the latest medical knowledge and practices through ongoing education. In the event of relocating or practicing in a different state, you might need to transfer or apply for a new license. This process involves meeting the new state’s licensing criteria and complying with their requirements.

What’s the Career Outlook for Physician Assistants?

The career outlook for physician assistants is positive. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, from 2021 to 2031, the employment of physician assistants is projected to grow by 28 percent. The growth rate is faster than the average for all occupations. In addition, approximately 12,700 openings for PA positions are projected each year, on average, over the decade.

This signifies a steady stream of job opportunities for individuals seeking to embark on a career as a physician assistant. The healthcare industry’s continuous expansion, along with the increasing need for quality medical care, contributes to the sustained demand for well-trained PAs.

Physician Assistant Popular Career Specialties

What are the Job Opportunities for Physician Assistants?

The job opportunities for physicians cut across different facets of healthcare delivery.

Some of the most prominent ones are:

  • Clinical Physician Assistant: Working directly with physicians, diagnosing illnesses, prescribing medications, and providing patient care in clinical settings such as hospitals, clinics, and medical practices.
  • Surgical Physician Assistant: Assisting surgeons in the operating room by performing preoperative assessments, assisting during surgeries, and providing postoperative care.
  • Emergency Medicine Physician Assistant: Providing immediate medical care in emergency departments, diagnosing injuries and illnesses, and coordinating patient treatment plans.
  • Primary Care Physician Assistant: Offering routine medical care, preventive services, and health education to patients in primary care settings.
  • Orthopedic Physician Assistant: Specializing in musculoskeletal health, diagnosing and treating orthopedic conditions, and assisting in surgeries and rehabilitation.
  • Cardiology Physician Assistant: Collaborating with cardiologists to manage heart-related conditions, conducting diagnostic tests, and educating patients about heart health.
  • Dermatology Physician Assistant: Treating skin conditions, conducting skin exams, performing minor procedures, and assisting dermatologists.
  • Pediatric Physician Assistant: Providing medical care to children, diagnosing illnesses, conducting well-child visits, and collaborating with pediatricians.
  • Oncology Physician Assistant: Assisting oncologists in diagnosing and treating cancer patients, managing treatment plans, and providing supportive care.
  • Neurology Physician Assistant: Diagnosing and treating neurological conditions, conducting neurological exams, and assisting neurologists.
  • Intensive Care Unit (ICU) Physician Assistant: Managing critically ill patients in the ICU, monitoring their conditions, and coordinating treatments.

What Type of Organizations Hire Physician Assistants?

Physician assistants are hired by different healthcare organizations and institutions that value their medical expertise and ability to provide quality patient care.

  • Hospitals: PAs work in various hospital departments, including emergency departments, surgery, internal medicine, pediatrics, cardiology, and more. They collaborate with physicians and other healthcare professionals to diagnose and treat patients.
  • Private Medical Practices: PAs are often employed in private medical practices, offering primary care, specialty care, and preventive services. They may work alongside physicians or independently, depending on state regulations.
  • Urgent Care Centers: PAs play a significant role in providing immediate care for non-life-threatening conditions in urgent care settings.
  • Clinics and Outpatient Facilities: PAs provide outpatient medical care, diagnose illnesses, manage chronic conditions, and offer preventive care in clinics and outpatient settings.
  • Surgical Centers: PAs assist surgeons in the operating room, performing preoperative assessments, participating in surgeries, and providing postoperative care.
  • Long-Term Care Facilities: PAs contribute to the care of elderly patients in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and rehabilitation centers.
  • Specialty Practices: PAs are hired by specialty practices, such as dermatology, orthopedics, cardiology, gastroenterology, neurology, and more, to assist in specialized patient care.
  • Military and Veterans Affairs: PAs serve in military healthcare facilities, VA hospitals, and clinics, providing medical care to active-duty service members and veterans.

Balancing Work and Life as a Physician Assistant

The work-life balance experienced by physician assistants (PAs) can differ based on a variety of factors. These include the healthcare setting they work in, their chosen specialty, and their personal preferences. In general, however, many PAs find that their profession offers a relatively positive work-life balance compared to some other healthcare roles.

For instance, PAs working in settings like clinics, private practices, and outpatient facilities often follow regular working hours that are similar to a standard 9-to-5 schedule. This can provide a structured routine that aids in planning personal time effectively.

On the other hand, those in environments such as hospitals, urgent care centers, or emergency departments might have shift-based schedules, which can include evenings, weekends, and even holidays. However, these schedules usually come with longer breaks between shifts, allowing for dedicated personal time.

The flexibility in work hours is a significant advantage for PAs. Many have the option to choose between part-time and full-time work, depending on their personal circumstances and preferences. This adaptability is especially valuable for those who prioritize achieving a harmonious balance between their professional and personal lives.

In some specialties, such as primary care, PAs may experience a more predictable routine with regular hours. However, fields like emergency medicine might involve more intense working patterns due to the nature of the work.

Factors like patient load, geographic location, and personal choices can also influence work-life balance. Ultimately, PAs have the opportunity to tailor their careers to suit their preferences, whether that involves a more structured routine, shift-based work, or flexibility.

Should I become a Physician Assistant?

Deciding whether to become a physician assistant is a significant choice that requires careful consideration. Understanding the steps required to become a PA is essential in making an informed decision. Individuals with a natural disposition towards healthcare, a desire to help others, and a strong interest in medical sciences are perfectly suited for this career path.

Carefully study the steps laid out in this guide as you begin your journey towards becoming a physician assistant (PA). Understanding these steps will provide you with a clear roadmap to follow and ensure you’re well-prepared for the challenges and rewards ahead. Keep in mind that each step contributes to your overall preparation and competence in the medical field.

Careers Related to Physician Assistant

Frequently Asked Questions

What does a Physician Assistant do?

A physician assistant diagnoses illnesses, develops treatment plans, performs medical procedures, and provides patient care under the supervision of physicians. PAs contribute to healthcare teams, offering medical expertise and helping patients manage their health conditions.


Do PAs ever become medical doctors?

PAs can become medical doctors by taking the MCAT exam and going to medical school. After completing medical school, former PAs can go on to complete residency training in a medical specialty of their choice to become licensed physicians. This transition requires additional years of education and training, which is why the transition is not so common.


Do PAs refer to themselves as doctors?

No, physician assistants (PAs) do not typically refer to themselves as doctors. While they have advanced medical training and play a significant role in patient care, they usually introduce themselves as “Physician Assistant” or “PA” to avoid any confusion with medical doctors.


Ibrahim Okunade

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