Choosing to enter a physician assistant program is like any other major commitment one makes in life: it takes thoughtful consideration and weighing of the pros and cons before dedicating one’s life to scientific study and clinical rotations for 25 to 27 months.
Fortunately, there are many accredited PA programs throughout the United States, so finding the one that suits your needs should be easy. Physician assistant programs are also offered online for those unable to travel to a classroom setting or for those who need the convenience of studying at home. If you opt for the online program, you must already have your associate’s degree and some level of healthcare experience. Do your homework and find the best program for you. Different types of PA programs exist, and while all programs are competitive, some are better than others. You’ll be spending the next few years working hard to become a physician assistant; be prepared for what lies ahead.
Most physician assistant programs are at the master’s level, but don’t worry if you aren’t ready to enter a graduate program; programs exist at the associate and baccalaureate levels as well. An associate program incorporates the same classes as those in the four year programs and expects the same level of competency from the students. All PA students rotate through clinical experiences in different medical specialties (medical-surgical, pediatrics, women’s health, etc.). While the admission criteria for an associate’s program is a bit simpler (only a high school diploma is needed), competition is still tough; these programs will demand more healthcare experience of applicants prior to admission.
The competition at the baccalaureate level is even more competitive. High school students should have strong backgrounds in biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. Many programs also require documented hours in a health care field. High school students should try to shadow practicing physician assistants.
Students can get their Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies, the highest degree a PA can attain at the moment. Of course you must have a bachelor’s degree before entering graduate school, but competition in these programs is fierce. “Many (graduate) programs have post-secondary GPA requirements of 3.0 or better (on a 4-point scale). Experience in the healthcare industry is also a necessary component, particularly in competitive programs,” (education-portal.com, 2011). As one can imagine, PA studies are heavy on the sciences: biochemistry, human anatomy and physiology, and pharmacology. The second year is where you gain actual clinical experience in primary care medicine, inpatient medicine, surgery, obstetrics and gynecology, geriatrics, emergency medicine, psychiatry, and pediatrics.
If, after high school, you know you want to become a physician assistant and pursue a master’s degree in the field, you can apply to a college that offers a 5-year entry level master’s degree for PAs. Duquesne University was the first college in the U.S. to offer this type of program. “Entry level students enter as freshmen…complete the five year curriculum, and earn both a Bachelor of Health Sciences degree and a Master of Physician Assistant Studies degree” (duq.edu, 2011), decreasing the time normally spent in school by one year.
What is accreditation, and why is it important? “Accreditation of an academic unit by an accrediting body is an evaluation process which leads to a public statement about the extent to which the unit meets official educational quality standards” (accreditation.org, n.d.). In other words, accreditation is review conducted by an external, objective review board to provide the public with reassurance that the school meets high standards and produces quality students. The accrediting agency for PA programs in the United States is the ARC-PA (Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant). According to their website, their organization is “the recognized accrediting agency that protects the interest of the public, including current and prospective PA students, and the PA profession by defining the standards for PA education and evaluating PA educational programs within the territorial United States to ensure their compliance with those standards” (arc-pa.org, n.d.). Accreditation is not mandatory; it is done when the school invites the ARC-PA to visit and evaluate its program. The ARC-PA has a long list of standards set forth by its governing board that PA programs must meet in order to be accredited. The board looks at everything from the school’s administration to course work to supervised clinical studies, and the standards are reviewed and revised on an average of every five years.
As a prospective student it is important to choose an accredited PA program because you want to receive the best education and training possible while ensuring public safety—the highest concern for all health care providers.
Physician assistant programs are not officially “ranked” per se, but in 2007, U.S. News and World Report, the news magazine that annually ranks educational institutions in the United States, assessed graduate PA programs and found that the Duke University’s PA program ranked the highest (out of 123 schools ranked) with a score of 4.4 (on a 5-point scale). The University of Iowa and University of Utah tied for second place. According to the website, health rankings are based on peer assessment surveys sent to deans, other administrators, and/or faculty at accredited degree programs or schools in each discipline.