Guide to Physician Assistant Degree Programs
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Learn what role physician assistants play in the doctor's office.
Obtaining your degree at a traditional university is essential to getting the clinical experience required to become a physician assistant.
Get an overview of what you will learn in a physician assistant degree program and preview specific courses you may take.
Discover what the job outlook and salary prospects are for physician assistants.
Understand What Physician Assistants Do
Physician assistants help surgeons and physicians in medical settings by diagnosing illnesses and injuries, examining patients, and providing treatment. Unlike medical assistants, they are involved with the actual practice of medicine, rather than merely performing routine clinical and clerical work. Physician assistants order and interpret tests and develop treatment plans accordingly. Increasingly, many PAs work in the triage area of emergency rooms, reducing wait times by examining patients with complaints that aren’t life-threatening. Others work for physician’s groups and see patients that have been admitted under that group’s care, overseeing the evolution of a patients’ condition and updating orders throughout their hospital stay.
In deciding whether to pursue a career as a physician assistant, you should also consider whether you are comfortable working as a healthcare provider but without the title of “Dr.” You will have to consult with doctors when a case is beyond your expertise or when you need guidance about what tests to order. However, you will share many responsibilities with physicians and will interact with patients and their families as a provider. You will provide advice to patients and families, answering questions about illnesses and healthy living practices. You will also record patient progress for physicians and review medical histories.
Learn How You Can Study To Become a Physician Assistant
Brick-and-mortar physician assistant programs are the standard for the field, due to the practical experience needed to learn diagnostic and medical skills. At a traditional university, you will receive assistance from experienced medical personnel, such as physicians and other physician assistants, to cultivate all the necessary skills to provide quality care in a clinical setting. You will also have access to top-quality medical facilities in which to observe seasoned clinicians. Most states require prospective physician assistants to have supervised clinical experience to receive licenses.
Although physician assistant degrees are not offered online, if you are interested in pursuing online education and have not yet completed your bachelor’s degree, you can enroll in a hybrid program in pre-medical education or nursing to prepare for physician assistant school. Online courses in these programs serve as prerequisites for a graduate physician assistant program.
Determine Whether a Physician Assistant Degree is Right for You
If you communicate well with others, have an interest in the human body, and are passionate about health, a physician assistant program is a good option for you. Ask yourself the following questions to see if you have the qualities of a physician assistant:
- Am I comfortable around injuries, blood, and illnesses?
- Do I excel in math and lab-based science courses?
- Do I have a desire to help others?
- Am I an effective teacher for instructing patients and families on management of illnesses?
- Do I have strong deductive reasoning skills for ruling out sources of illness and diagnosing medical problems?
- Am I comfortable working in healthcare under the supervision of doctors?
Answering affirmatively to the majority of these questions is a good indication that you’ll succeed in this field.
On the other hand, if you have a poor memory for anatomical features, drug names, drug interactions and diseases, you will be a poor fit for a physician assistant program. Likewise, if you are not comfortable in high-pressure situations, you should reconsider becoming a physician assistant, as medical professionals must often make judgment calls to save patients’ lives.
Discover What You Will Do in Physician Assistant Colleges
In an accredited physician assistant degree program, you will learn about a wide range of human body systems, including the digestive system, the endocrine system, and the respiratory system. You will also learn skills for communicating with others in a clinical setting, such as how to conduct a clinical assessment. Finally, you will learn about medicines used in the medical field today. After learning all of these basic skills, you will put these skills into practice under the supervision of licensed professionals in clinical settings.
Browse the physician assistant courses you will take
The following courses are typical of physician assistant programs:
Clinical Medicine for Specific Body Systems
Fundamentals of Anatomy
Infectious Disease and Immunology
All physician assistant degree programs are required to provide some sort of clinical experience in order to meet licensure requirements. These come after all coursework has been completed and provide you with an opportunity to observe specialists and hone your skills in practical settings with the aid of experienced medical staff.
Take full advantage of these clinical rotations in your second year of PA school, as you will have the unique opportunity to experience many specializations firsthand. These clinical experiences can help you choose a specialized field, such as orthopedics or emergency medicine. You can even also choose to enroll in a postgraduate specialization program, such as a surgical physician residency program. A PA program with a surgical focus will prepare you for a career as a surgical physician assistant, allowing you to assist surgeons during operations and provide care for patients in intensive care units.
Discover the Physician Assistant Degree Levels Schools Offer
Physician assistant degrees are only offered at two levels:
- Bachelor’s: A physician assistant bachelor’s degree is a good choice for students who want to complete their entire medical curriculum at one school. This program typically takes five years to complete, and is longer than a regular bachelor’s degree program, but still leads to a job as a physician assistant.
- Master’s: After you have completed a bachelor’s degree in a science field, or a bachelor’s in another field with science prerequisites, you can apply to a physician assistant master’s degree program. A physician assistant master’s degree typically takes two years, after which you will be ready to work as a physician assistant.
Make Sure You Meet Licensing Requirements
Physician assistants are licensed by state medical boards or health departments rather than a single national organization. As a result, requirements for licensure differ from state to state, and you should contact your state health department or medical board to learn more about the requirements that are specific to your state. A list of state organizations that oversee physician assistant licensure is available online.
There are, however, some common sets of requirements shared by different states. Students are expected to graduate from an accredited physician assistant education program, pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE), and complete some sort of on-site training with licensed medical personnel.
You will need to undergo continuing medical education to retain your license in most states. This allows you to keep up with current developments in medical practice. States typically set forth a specific number of hours of education necessary over a given period of time to retain a license.
If you move to another state after receiving your physician assistant license, you should contact the health department in that state to find out how to become licensed to practice there. Some states have reciprocity agreements with other states that allow you to begin practicing very quickly. Others require physician assistants from other states to take an examination before providing care in that state.
Pass the PANCE Exam
The National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) administers the PANCE exam for students who want to become certified physician assistants. This is a multiple choice test, administered via computer, which assesses your basic medical and surgical knowledge. You must pass within six years of graduation from an accredited program. PANCE tutorials are available on the NCCPA site if you are interested in learning more about the content of the test.
You can attempt the test up to three times per year, up to a maximum of six attempts, at a cost of $475 per attempt. After six attempts, you must pursue another physician assistant program at another university to regain eligibility. Most students eventually pass the PANCE exam, and many schools report that more than 95% of their students pass the exam on the first attempt. In addition to using the online tutorials, you will need to prepare for the test using your notes from your physician assistant courses. You must also pass the Physician Assistant National Recertification Examination (PANRE) every six years to remain certified.
Understand Why Accreditation is Necessary
Make sure your preferred program is accredited and qualifies you for licensure before applying. The Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA) is the primary accrediting body for physician assistant education programs in the United States. Graduation from a program with accreditation from this organization is necessary for licensure as a physician assistant in many states.
Discover the Job Outlook for Physician Assistants
The physician assistant career is growing quickly. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects at least 30% growth between 2010 and 2020. Compensation is also high, with a typical salary of $86,410 per year for salaried professionals, and an average of $41.54 per hour for those paid by the hour. However, the work is high-pressure, and many physician assistants work more than 50 hours per week, so you will work hard for the salary you take home in this field.