How to Become a Physician Assistant

Healthcare services are becoming more team based and cost-effective, so opportunities for physician assistants (PAs) have never been better. PAs can work in many different healthcare settings. They provide many of the same services as physicians, but their training takes less time and costs less.

Review what you need to know to become a physician assistant and what to expect from this rapidly growing career.

What Is a Physician Assistant?

Physician assistants are medical providers with master’s degrees. They provide preventive, diagnostic, and therapeutic healthcare services in collaboration with a licensed physician.

PAs offer many of the same services as doctors like physical exams and prescribing medications. They typically work in hospitals, physicians’ offices, outpatient clinics, nursing homes, and community health facilities.

In the future, physician assistants might use the title “physician associate,” depending on the jurisdiction governing their licensure and practice. In 2021, the national professional group for PAs formally changed its nameto the American Academy of Physician Associates (AAPA) to better reflect their team-based approach as healthcare providers.

However, the AAPA stresses that “it is inappropriate for PAs to hold themselves out as ‘physician associates’ until legislative and regulatory changes are made to incorporate the new title.”

Steps to Becoming a Physician Assistant

Some graduate PA programs accept undergraduate degrees in any subject. But a bachelor’s degree in natural science or healthcare science, a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree, or a specific prephysician assistant program is the best preparation for graduate work.

PA programs look for bachelor degree-holders with a strong foundation in science and a high GPA, often 3.0 or better.

Healthcare experience is a prerequisite for admission to most PA programs. Applicants should have at least 1,000 hours of hands-on direct patient care, although some schools require as many as 4,000 hours.

Aspiring PAs can gain this experience working as an emergency medical technician or paramedic or licensed practical or registered nurse. Nursing assistant, surgical technician, or similar position can also provide the necessary experience.

Keep in mind that each of these roles has its own eligibility and licensure requirements. For example, working as a licensed practical or registered nurse requires passing the appropriate National Council Licensure Examination by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing.

To become a physician assistant, you must complete a master’s level PA program accredited through the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). These programs, which take about 27 months to complete, include intensive classroom instruction, labs, and clinicals.

After completing a physician assistant master’s program, you will need to pass the PANCE and apply for licensure in the state where you intend to work. Depending on the state, you may have to meet additional licensing requirements to practice.

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Physician Assistant Education

PAs must complete an accredited master’s level program that takes around three years of study beyond the bachelor’s degree. A PA master’s program includes coursework that focuses on generalist medicine and at least 2,000 hours of clinical rotations.

Bachelor’s Degree

While PA master’s programs accept applicants from different academic backgrounds, a strong science-focused undergraduate degree provides the best preparation for graduate work. Most aspiring PAs have earned their undergraduate degrees in biology or healthcare sciences. Some students enter a PA master’s after completing a BSN program or prephysician assistant undergraduate program.

Themost common prerequisitesfor the PA master’s degree include coursework in physiology and anatomy, general chemistry, microbiology, statistics, and general psychology.

High school diploma or its equivalent; minimum 2.5 GPA; reference letters

Evidence-based practice; medical-surgical nursing; assessment; pharmacology; medical technology; clinical placements

2-4 years

Writing and communication skills; mastery of key concepts; competencies in math and natural science; critical thinking and problem-solving

PA Program

You need at least a master’s degree to become a physician assistant and earn state certification. According to the Physician Assistant Education Association, PA master’s programs have highly selective admission requirements.

The challenging curriculum, based on the same medical model as doctor training, emphasizes generalist medicine and primary care. It also covers basic medical science, healthcare delivery, principles of primary care, and medical ethics.

Most programs require 27 months of instruction and at least 2,000 hours of clinicals in hospitals and acute care centers, ambulatory clinics, physicians’ offices, or long-term care facilities. PA students can pursue their clinicals in areas such as family medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, psychiatry, and emergency medicine.

Of all healthcare careers, only doctors receive more clinical training than PAs.

Bachelor’s degree and at least 1,000 hours of healthcare experience; minimum 3.0 GPA; prerequisites in chemistry, biology, physiology, and anatomy; personal statement; interview

Physical diagnosis and patient evaluation; clinical lab and diagnostic methods; population/public health; medical ethics; clinical placements

27 months

Foundational knowledge of medical-surgical conditions; evidence-based medicine; team-based care; cultural competency; critical thinking and interpersonal communication

Physician Assistant Licensure and Certification

Before you can apply for state licensure as a physician assistant, you must pass the PANCE exam administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). Only graduates of accredited ARC-PA programs are eligible to take the PANCE exam.

The PANCE exam, which must be taken within 180 days of your graduation date, consists of 300 multiple-choice questions in five blocks of 60 questions. The exam covers medical content and task areas for entry-level practice as a certified physician assistant.

After successfully passing the exam and becoming NCCPA certified, you may use the credential ‘physician assistant certified.’

Working as a Physician Assistant

The shortage of primary care physicians is a factor in the high demand for PAs. Also, the mounting healthcare needs of the aging population and patients with chronic diseases are driving the growing need for physician assistants. The demand is so great that three quarters of PAs receive several job offers when they graduate.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that PA positions will increase by 31% from 2020-2030, much faster than the average for all occupations. Among the highest-paid healthcare professionals, PAs earn a median annual salary of $121,530 as of May 2021, with the highest 10% earning more than $160,000 a year.

These healthcare professionals can find employment in almost every kind of healthcare facility, performing many of the same duties handled by physicians. Their responsibilities correspond to their specialty areas and type of work setting.

For example, PAs working in general practice alongside physicians conduct physical exams, order diagnostic tests, and devise patient care plans. Those working in surgical settings assist with pre-admission, intraoperative procedures, postanesthesia care, and step-down unit treatment. PAs specializing in pediatrics may spend their time diagnosing childhood illnesses, prescribing medication, setting broken bones, and administering vaccinations.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Physician Assistant

How many years does it take to become a physician assistant?

Becoming a physician assistant can take up to nine years of training, beginning with a bachelor’s degree that typically requires four years. In addition to earning a bachelor’s, admission to a PA program requires completion of 1,000-4,000 hours of direct patient care experience. Most PA degrees take 27 months, or three years, to complete.

What is the quickest way to become a physician assistant?

While there are no shortcuts to becoming a physician assistant, the most efficient way to prepare for this career is to make sure that you have completed all prerequisite coursework and direct patient care requirements before your masters program.

Online and hybrid master’s programs may not necessarily shorten the time needed to complete the degree, but they may provide more flexible and affordable options.

How hard is it to become a physician assistant?

PA programs can be as challenging as traditional medical school. The fast-paced three-year curriculum, which runs straight through without breaks, builds on previously learned content. Didactic courses may require two or more exams each week with mandatory test pass rates.

Rigorous clinical placements make it almost impossible to hold down an outside job. Strategies for success include good time management skills, collaborative study with classmates, and taking time for self-care to reduce stress.

Do physician assistants get paid well?

According to 2021 estimates from BLS, physician assistants make an average annual salary of $119,460, with wages ranging from close to $78,000 a year for the lowest paid to over $164,000 for the top earners. Pay levels vary by work setting, specialty areas, geographic location, and years of experience. The highest-paid PAs, making annual salaries of $130,000 and over, work in outpatient care centers, skilled nursing facilities, and research and development settings.

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