Physician Assistant Programs

Change. Many people bristle at the very mention of the word change, but thanks to changes in the healthcare system over the past forty or fifty years, several career options are available to those who want to work in healthcare without having to spend years in medical school and subsequent residency. Perhaps you’ve personally noticed some of these changes in your doctor’s office. Maybe you’ve called for an appointment with your physician and instead been offered an appointment with a physician assistant because the doctor’s schedule is full. You may not like the word “assistant.” Maybe it reminds you of the medical assistant—the young man or woman who takes your blood pressure and temperature when he or she escorts you into an examining room. However, a medical assistant and physician assistant have different training and duties.

  • What’s the difference between the medical assistant, the physician assistant, and the doctor you normally see?
  • When thinking about a possible career in health care those questions are pertinent: do you want to be a physician assistant or a medical assistant?
  • Do you want to be a nurse practitioner or a doctor?

It depends on what excites you about health care, how much time and education you’re willing to endure, and how much responsibility you’re willing to assume.

First, there is a big difference between a physician assistant and a medical assistant. One can become a medical assistant with a high school diploma and a year spent training at a trade school or local community college. A physician assistant often has at least two years of college under his or her belt in addition to several years’ worth of healthcare experience (i.e., as a nurse’s aide, an EMT, or even as a medical assistant). The physician assistant holds an actual license to practice medicine while the medical assistant is granted a certificate of completion from an appropriate training program. Physician assistants diagnose, treat illnesses, and prescribe medications. They practice medicine under the supervision of physicians and surgeons and should not be confused with medical assistants who have far less education and training and perform routine clinical and clerical tasks.

The differences between a doctor, nurse practitioner, and physician assistant are a little less straightforward. The doctor, of course, has the actual medical degree and has completed anywhere from four to eight years of a residency in a specialized field. The physician assistant may have much the same training, minus the residency, but works under the supervision of the doctor. Physician assistants (PAs) are health professionals licensed to practice medicine with physician supervision. Nurse practitioners are registered nurses who have obtained a master’s degree and licensing in their state of residency. They have years of nursing experience and education and can operate independently of a physician.

Perhaps you don’t want to undertake the commitment required of medical or nursing school and all the training that goes with it, but you don’t want to be a medical assistant either. If you want actual patient care and the satisfaction that goes with diagnosing and treating sick patients, then becoming a physician assistant is the perfect alternative.

Physician Assistant
  • Where did the idea for physician assistants come from?
  • Why would doctors willingly relinquish some of their patient responsibilities?

PAs came out of the medical corps during the Vietnam War. Medics were given more medical responsibility in the field because physicians and surgeons had to care for the sickest and most severely wounded patients. The PA profession emerged in the mid-1960s to alleviate the problem of physician maldistribution and to increase the public’s access to quality health care. The first physician assistant program was started at Duke University by Dr. Eugene Stead Jr. “who believed that mid-level practitioners could increase consumer access to health services by extending the time and skills of the physician,” (Physician Assistant Program, 2011).

Once you’ve completed your education and passed the national certification exam, you can treat patients in a local doctor’s office or in a hospital or clinic setting. Many PAs work in rural areas to provide quality healthcare to those with limited access. Your duties will extend from treating sore throats to diagnosing and treating chronic illnesses to caring for those in emergency situations.

Physician assistants are integral members of healthcare team. You will be fulfilled both personally and professionally in this exciting role.

Last Updated: 05/12/2014

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