An Introduction to Physician Assistant Programs in the United States

Unsure as to what role you would like to play in the medical field? If you find the task of going to medical school and enduring a four to six year residency daunting, or the idea of bedside nursing less than satisfying, perhaps a career as a physician assistant (PA) is for you. Accredited physician assistant programs are plentiful throughout the United States; in fact, 43 states and the District of Columbia offer PA programs. Thankfully, most of these programs can be completed in 26 months.

Physician assistant programs currently exist at the associate, baccalaureate, and master’s level of academic preparation. According to the American Academy of Physician Assistants, regardless of the academic degree awarded, all graduates sit for the national certifying exam, perform the same duties, and are held to the same standards of accountability.

Admission requirements vary by program; however, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2009), “most applicants have a college degree and some health-related work experience.” Physician assistant programs will admit those holding the basic high school diploma, but most will want proof of some healthcare experience as competition to get into these programs is fierce and getting more so every day.

Once their academic coursework is completed, physician assistants have to pass a national certifying examination in order to obtain a license in their state of residency.

Pay scale and accountability standards are equal regardless of the degree obtained, although some doctors may require their PAs to obtain a certain level of education.

An Introduction to Physician Assistant Programs in the United States

Accredited physician assistant programs at the associate’s level are just as demanding as those at 4-years institutions.

A typical course load may include the following:

  • Human Anatomy
  • Microbiology
  • Biochemistry
  • Pharmacology
  • Pathophysiology
  • Physical diagnosis

The baccalaureate physician assistant programs are similar to the associate’s degree, but combine multiple semesters of scientific and humanities education with the clinical rotations and medical training requirements of an accredited physician assistant degree program. Generally, the first 12 months of a physician assistant bachelor’s degree program covers basic medical sciences (biology, chemistry, anatomy, and biochemistry) in preparation for clinical rotations.
You will find most of the accredited degree programs for physician assistants at the master’s level. Educationportal.com advises, “All graduate programs require that applicants hold accredited bachelor’s degrees; however, most physician assistant programs require undergraduate educations in the areas related to health science, and many have post-secondary GPA requirements of 3.0 or better.” Many of the courses listed above are required at the graduate level.

The course work doesn’t end once you’ve become a physician assistant. All states require PAs pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE). This credential allows holders to use the Physician Assistant-Certified (P.A.-C) denotation in their title. To maintain this certification, physician assistants must complete 100 hours of continuing education every two years and have to re-take the exam every six years.

There are also physician assistant programs online. A number of universities, including the University of Phoenix, Strayer University, Kaplan University, and DeVry University, offer online physician assistant programs; however, all online programs require applicants to have a bachelor’s degree before they will be admitted into the program.

No matter where you are in life or where you live in the U.S., there is a physician assistant program available that suits your specific needs.

Example: Physician Assistant Student Handbook

Time Commitment for Physician Assistant Programs

Time Commitment for Physician Assistant ProgramsYou’ve decided you want to be a physician assistant. Now what do you do? How long is it going to take? It is helpful if you already have the required minimum of two years’ college education and some healthcare experience. Physician assistant programs are highly competitive; as such, the average PA student holds a bachelor’s degree in some field and has approximately 4 years of health-related experience. Educational programs for PAs are usually associated with colleges of medicine and vary in length from 25 to 27 months.

Physician assistants are a lot like doctors and are trained in the same manner. “Because of the close working relationship PAs have with physicians, PAs are educated in a medical model designed to complement physician training. PAs are taught, as medical students, to diagnose and treat medical problems” (Physician assistant programs, aapa.org, n.d.). The “medical model” is basically the way in which doctors are trained—to listen to patient complaints, take medical histories (assess the problem as a whole), diagnose, and treat. In the medical model, “The physician focuses on the defect, or dysfunction, within the patient, using a problem-solving approach” (medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com, 2009).

If you’re starting at the very beginning and have never worked in health care you will have to acquire some experience before starting a PA program.

You can work as a nurse’s aide in a nursing home or hospital or as a medical assistant in a doctor’s office. You can become an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT), but these jobs require training as well, although the time commitment is small in comparison to becoming a physician assistant.

If you already have some healthcare experience and at least two years’ of college, you’re ahead of the game.

The Academy of Physician Assistants recommends that a physician assistant program should last approximately 26 months. The bachelor’s degree program incorporates multiple semesters of scientific and humanities education with the clinical rotations and training requirements of an accredited physician assistant degree program.

If you have a bachelor’s degree and are considering going for your Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies, expect a heavier course load and more time in the clinical setting. “The master’s degree usually begins with a year of pre-clinical courses and ends with a series of clinical rotations in the areas of internal medicine, orthopedics, pediatrics, psychiatry and more” (education-portal.com, 2011). Both the bachelor’s and master’s programs require the following courses: biology, biochemistry, human anatomy, microbiology, pharmacology, and clinical procedures.

The amount of experience and education you have going into a physician assistant program will dictate how much of a time commitment will be needed to obtain the degree(s) and licensure needed to become a PA. It could take as little as two years and as much as five years or more to reach this goal. Thankfully, there are several avenues one can take to enter this fast growing and interesting field.



Last Updated: 05/12/2014

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