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10 Things You Didn’t Know About Physician Assistants

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We offer helpful, informative content to the next generation of healthcare professionals, so that they can achieve their goals, avoid common pitfalls, and grow in their passion for healthcare.

As a pre-med, you are likely still weighing your options for a future career in the medical field. There are many, so it’s important to be informed. Here are ten things you may not have known about physician assistants!

Still trying to decide what career you want in medicine?

Pursuing a career in medicine is an exciting, yet extremely substantial decision. As a pre-health student or someone looking to pursue a profession in the medical field, you want to be confident in the career path you are choosing and sure that you have carefully evaluated all of your possible options.

Medicine offers countless career opportunities, many of which can differ significantly from one another. Everyone who chooses to pursue an occupation in medicine has an important role to play in the lives of their patients, the team of healthcare providers they are collaborating with, and everyone else who is directly impacted by the decisions they make along the way. This is why it is especially important to be informed about all of the possible careers open for pursuit in the medical field.

Although all careers in the medical field are of equal importance, today we are mainly focussing on one: physician assistant. Have you ever found yourself wondering what the differences are between a physician and a physician assistant? In order to give you a clear insight into an often overlooked, yet ever-growing field in the healthcare world, here are 10 things you didn’t know about a career as a physician assistant!

Here’s a preview of what we will cover in this article, but you’ll want to read all of them in-depth as well!

  1. A PA’s scope of practice is nearly identical to that of a licensed physician

  2. In most states, physician assistants are regulated by the same board as physicians

  3. PAs do not need an attending physician on site to practice

  4. A career as a PA means plentiful access to lateral mobility

  5. PA School is NOT a backup plan

  6. PAs get an early jump on hands-on experiences

  7. PAs have an extremely flexible schedule

  8. A PA career is more patient-care centered

  9. The salary is great!

  10. PA careers are growing in popularity… and FAST

1. A PA’s scope of practice is nearly identical to that of a licensed physician

A physician assistant’s scope of practice, or their potential list of tasks, includes assessing patients, diagnosing injuries and illnesses, creating treatment plans, prescribing medications, managing patients, ordering advanced imaging tests (CT, MRI, Ultrasound), and even assisting in surgeries. PAs receive all of the necessary education and training to be able to work and assist in any area of specialty. There are a number of misconceptions about a PAs scope of practice in comparison to that of a medical doctor (MD) or doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO).

Further Reading: MD or DO? Which is Right for You?

In reality, however, the scope of practice is nearly one and the same. The biggest difference between a PA’s scope of practice and a physician’s scope of practice lies the advanced education in specialty trainings. Both the PA and physician are responsible for patient care, but a PA operates under the advisory and indirect supervision of a physician.

Many people assume: PAs are a “physician’s assistant,” but they are physician assistants. With this common misconception comes more false inferences, such as the assumption that a PA is not allowed to practice independently, or that the care provided by these medical professionals is inferior to that of a physician. In actuality,, physician assistants are nationally certified and state licensed professionals. This license and certification mean that PAs are allowed to practice permanently and effectively, so long as they complete and pass recertification exams and make the appropriate payments to hold their professional license. Although PAs are always under the advisory of an MD or DO, PAs have the credentials to practice as independent providers. With this, they are able to prescribe medications, conduct physical examinations, order and interpret advanced imaging screenings, and hold a practice extremely similar to that of a physician.

2. In most states, physician assistants are regulated by the same board as physicians

A physician assistant is a state-licensed and nationally certified medical professional who has undergone several rigorous exams, hundreds of hours of intense academic training, and multiple patient care rotations, in order to be best prepared to treat real-life patients and to best execute their medical knowledge properly.

Aside from completing all of the necessary academic education, training, and clinical aspects, PAs are also required to pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) in order to receive their national certification to practice. PAs must also complete and pass recertification exams every 6 years.

If you were wondering about all of the tests you’ll need to take, even in preparation for PA school, you’ll be happy to hear that most schools to not require the MCAT. You will, however, need to take the GRE. If you have taken the MCAT anyway (maybe you still weren’t sure whether you wanted to go to medical school instead) you might be able to apply to PA school with your MCAT score. Make sure you do research on the schools you want to apply to well in advance, so that you know which test you will need to take in order to apply!

3. PAs do not need an attending physician on site to practice

In order to practice, PAs are not required to have an attending on site. Although physician assistants must practice under the direction or indirect supervision of a physician at all times, PAs have a tremendous amount of freedom to put their skills to practice even when an attending is not present.

This is especially important to understand, as a PA’s credibility is often a pain point that is actually used against them by patients. With responses like, “when is the real doctor coming?” or “I want to see a real doctor,” it may be easy to get discouraged in the PA profession. However, it is important to recognize PAs for who they are as medical professionals and pay them the same respect as a doctor would receive.

Despite the differences between a PA and an MD/DO, a physician assistant is in fact a licensed medical professional who is able to diagnose, treat, and prescribe identical to how a physician would.

4. A career as a PA means plentiful access to lateral mobility

Being a PA means that you do not have to limit yourself to a single area of specialty!

For example, if a physician assistant is interested in the fascinating findings of the operating room, but one day decides they want to pursue an occupation in obstetrics instead, they will be able to make that lateral switch without having to endure more training.

The benefit of being able to switch specialties as a physician assistant will also allow for longevity in the career itself, as well as help with burnout prevention.

You won’t have to return for several more years of schooling before you can make that transition, whereas a physician who decides they want to switch specialties will have to return to medical school, redo their subspecialty education and training, and start a completely new residency program once they have finished the required schooling.

It is easy to see why an MD must be extra sure that the specialty they choose is something they can see themselves doing every day for the rest of their lives— because that’s precisely what it means. Of course, a physician assistant may never decide to move to another specialty, but having the freedom to do so relieves a lot of deciding pressure on the front end of your career, and leaves you much more room to explore your options freely.

As a physician assistant, you will receive inclusive training needed to work in any medical area you wish, which provides PAs with lots of lateral mobility, or freedom to “move around.” The benefit of being able to switch specialties as a physician assistant will also allow for longevity in the career itself, as well as help with burnout prevention. Working as a physician assistant gives individuals much more freedom within the field of healthcare.

5. PA School is NOT a backup plan

We’ll say that again— choosing to go to PA school is not a backup plan for not getting into medical school. The application processes look very different and will require very different levels of preparation from applicants.

Becoming a physician assistant is quite like choosing any other career path, as you should choose your career based off of your passion findings! PA school should not be considered as a “plan B” if medical school did not work out. Students who choose to go to PA school will do so for a variety of reasons, and there is no doubt that there are some who have done so after being denied from medical school. However, considering that preparing to apply to PA school is drastically different than preparing to apply to medical school, it doesn’t make sense to assume you can easily make the switch from pre-med to pre-PA and expect an “easy” acceptance.

According to Lorae Schafer, a newly board-certified physician assistant, “PA school is NOT a backup to medical school. Almost all of us choose this as our career with no intent of becoming a physician.”

What are the differences between applying to medical school versus PA school?

The differences in preparing for PA school include needing a much higher number of hours spent doing hands-on patient care. The number of hours required will vary by school, but can be anywhere from 200 to 2000 hours of hands-on experience. Most pre-meds will focus on gaining hands-off clinical shadowing experience, which may not contribute in the same way to the overall total number of clinical hours needed to apply to PA school. Experience that would count as hands-on patient care would include working as a phlebotomist, EMT, Certified Nurses Aid (CNA), working in a hospice, emergency room technician, dental hygienist, or physical therapy aid, among others.

Secondarily, students will use the CASPA application to apply to PA school, rather than the AMCAS or AACOMAS used to apply for places in MD or DO programs.

6. PAs get an early jump on hands-on experiences

PA school may not be as long as medical school, but PA students typically start their medical career long before their training as a physician assistant begins. Like pre-meds, pre-PAs are almost always required to have healthcare experience before they even apply to PA school.

This pre-PA school experience may look like working in an emergency department as an EMT. Experience may also be acquiring hours as a patient care technician in your local hospital, hospital shadowing, a certified nurse aide in a nursing home, a phlebotomist at a nearby clinic, or any other hands-on, direct care provided to patients.

Some programs don’t require any patient care experience whatsoever, but others require several-thousands of hours before even applying to their program! Make sure to do your research on the requirements for all of the programs you will be applying for in order to avoid delay of acceptance.

7. PAs have an extremely flexible schedule

Aside from the specialty flexibility, PAs also work more regular and flexible hours. This means that if you have plans of starting a family, making travel a regular part of your life, or just want more personal time to enjoy other things you love outside of work, a career as a PA will give you that freedom. Depending on the place of work and your own personal schedule preferences, a PA may work three longer shifts each week or they may work a Monday through Friday schedule with shorter work blocks. A career as a PA allows for a great amount of flexibility!

8. A PA career is more patient-care centered

One of the most beneficial and rewarding parts of becoming a PA is the one-on-one time you will get to spend with your patients. PAs often get to focus most of their attention on patient-centered practices, whereas physicians spend a lot of time outside of the exam rooms doing things like charting, prescribing medications, dealing with insurance companies, and dictating their patient’s conditions for legal documentation purposes.

PAs have the pleasure of performing physical examinations, personally interacting with patients, and explaining treatment regimens. An estimated 8.5 million patients are seen by PAs across the country weekly! This statistic shows the major impact and involvement that physician assistants have in the world of healthcare, as they play a critical role in the individual lives of patients.

9. The salary is great!

According to a recent U.S. News and World Report article, the median salary for a physician assistant lies around $105,000. However, depending on the state you decide to practice in, the salary may be significantly higher, with a $5,000 to $40,000 difference than the median salary. According to their Physician Assistant Salary report, a profession as a PA was also voted number one best health care job and the number three best job in STEM.

10. PA careers are growing in popularity… and FAST

According to a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics article, employment of physician assistants is expected to rise a substantial 37% within the ten-year time frame of 2016 to 2026. PAs are continuing to take on new leadership roles in the healthcare system, fill the gaps wherever necessary, and break new boundaries in proving their relevance in the healthcare world!

Careers as a physician assistant are on the rise. With a shorter schooling time compared to other graduate programs, high job satisfaction, a healthy work-life balance opportunity, an environment that provides a chance to collaborate with teams of other healthcare professionals, and a high earning potential, it is surely obvious why pursuits in becoming a physician assistant professional are quickly growing!

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About Atlantis

Atlantis is the leader in pre-health shadowing and clinical experience, offering short-term programs (1-10 weeks) over academic breaks for U.S. pre-health undergraduates. Medical schools want 3 things: (1)healthcare exposure, (2)GPA/MCAT, and (3)certain competencies. Atlantis gives you a great version of (1), frees you to focus on (2), and cultivates/shows (3) to medical school admissions committees.

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Cover of the Medical School Admissions Guide.
Two Atlantis alumni admitted to Top 5 MD programs wrote our widely read medical school admissions guidebook — download yours.