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Physician Assistant: Overview of Education for Physician Assistants

Sep 25, 2019

Learn about the education and preparation needed to become a physician assistant. Get a quick view of the requirements as well as details about degree programs, job duties and licensure to find out if this is the career for you.

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Physician assistants work closely with physicians and nurses in a clinic or hospital. If you would like to become a physician assistant, you will most likely need to complete a master's degree program and pass an exam to become licensed. This profession involves direct patient care, and job growth should be much faster than average in the 2014-2024 decade.

Essential Information

Physician assistants are medical professionals who perform medical diagnostics and procedures under the supervision of physicians. In every state, they must be licensed. Requirements vary, but usually involve completing an accredited physician assistant program, most commonly offered at the master's degree level. These educational programs for physician assistants usually cover both the academic and experiential requirements necessary for licensure. Physician assistants must meet continuing education standards in order to keep their licenses up to date.

Required Education Master's degree from an accredited physician assistant program
Licensing All states require licensing
Projected Job Growth (2018-2028)* 31%
Median Salary (2018)* $108,610

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Educational Overview for Physician Assistants

Physician assistants can find academic training programs at the associate's, bachelor's and master's degree levels. Some require applicants to have satisfied prerequisite scientific coursework or hold experience in a healthcare field. Common course topics at all levels include pharmacology, anatomy and physiology.

To become licensed, candidates must complete programs approved by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). The majority of accredited programs exist at the master's degree level. However, academic requirements are set by states' medical boards, and some might accept an associate's or bachelor's degree for licensure.

Master's degree programs require extensive clinical experience that allow students to work in a healthcare facility, under supervision, and rotate between departments every few weeks. Students participate in both required placements, such as internal medicine and surgery, as well as select elective rotations in specialized areas of interest. At the end of each rotation, students are typically evaluated through examinations and must submit their supervising physician's assessment.

Licensing Requirements

All states require individuals to pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) to obtain a license (www.nccpa.org). The PANCE is a multiple-choice exam that tests individuals on topics in anatomy, disease, diagnostics and both medical and surgical procedures. In order for physician assistants to maintain licensure, they must meet continuing education standards and pass a recertification exam.

Career Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment for physician assistants was expected to increase 31% from 2018-2028 (www.bls.gov). The factors contributing to this growth include the increased responsibilities and decreased cost of physician assistants, healthcare industry expansion and the need to replace those who are leaving the field. Major areas of employment include physician's offices, hospitals and outpatient centers.

Salary Information

As of May 2018, the BLS reported that the median annual salary for physician assistants was $108,610. Location, employer and specialty were among the factors that influenced pay rates. Generally, hospitals and outpatient clinics offered salaries slightly above the national average. Industries that paid the highest wages included employment services, specialty hospitals, home health care services and outpatient care centers.

In summary, physician assistants work under the supervision of physicians, but are often able to make diagnosis and treatment decisions for patients. Most accredited physician assistant training programs are at the master's degree level, and a good background in the sciences is helpful for program applicants, if not required. Licensing is a requirement in every state.

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