Working under the supervision of medical doctors, physician assistants play a vital role in the healthcare system. Physician assistants (PAs) typically earn master's degrees in order to be eligible for licensed practice in the field.
Because PAs provide direct medical care to patients, hands-on clinical training is imperative to prepare for state licensure. As a result, most physician assistant programs, which take two to three years to complete, have campus-based or on-site clinical components. Applicants typically need a bachelor's degree with statistical and scientific coursework.
Despite the on-site requirements, these programs do provide flexibility to working adults through online coursework. Distance learners can log on to a virtual classroom when it's convenient for them and complete assignments, engage with peers and view lectures. The following offers some insight into what to expect from distance learning PA programs by highlighting a few school options.
University of Wisconsin - Madison
The University of Wisconsin-Madison offers the Master of Physician Assistant Studies (MPAS) certificate of completion through a distance learning track of study. The program is designed to train competent generalist practitioners and increase the ability of a practicing PA to specialize. Incoming students must have a bachelor's degree, which includes several science and statistics credits, as well as healthcare experience.
The distance program follows the same curriculum as the on-campus program. It is extended for an additional year since it is assumed students will be attending only part-time. Coursework includes areas of study such as:
- Physical examinations and evaluations
- Infectious disease
- Women's health
- Emergency medicine
- Diagnostic methods
- Prevention medicine
- Surgery fundamentals
The program requires 12 weeks of on-campus residency the first summer. Following this, students must attend short campus residencies twice a semester. Distance learners will complete clinical requirements in their third year of study, which involves five medical rotations that are each eight weeks long.
University of Nebraska Medical Center, School of Allied Health Professions
The online program at the University of Nebraska in Omaha -- the MPAS degree advancement option -- is available to individuals who have already completed an accredited PA program and been certified. Applicants must be employed in an educational or clinical position and be able to find a physician willing to be a preceptor for the clinical aspects of the program.
The purpose of the program is to allow experienced PAs an opportunity to gain new clinical and research skills in the field. Distance learners can fulfill all of the requirements in five semesters, but have the option to take up to five years if necessary. Students can also earn continuing medical education credits through participation in this course of study.
The curriculum requires core courses and the option to complete a clinical or education track. The clinical track requires 800 hours of advanced supervised clinical work at their place of employment. Students must also research a medical topic and write a scientific paper discussing the results. Students in the education track must complete 320 hours of student clinical teaching. Online core coursework covers the following areas:
- Healthcare ethics
- Canadian healthcare policy
- Healthcare management
- Clinical inquiry and writing methods
A.T. Still University of Health Sciences
The online post-professional program offered at the Arizona campus of A.T. Still University of Health Sciences (ATSU) is open only to those who have completed a PA program and possess licensure to practice. The program awards a Master of Science in Advanced Physician Assistant Studies and offers concentrations in education/leadership or clinical medicine.
Although all academic work is online, the concentration in clinical medicine requires 400 hours of actual supervised patient care. This may be done at the student's current job. The concentration in education and leadership focuses on providing students further training in teaching healthcare professionally. Depending on students' chosen track, they may learn about the following:
- Medical writing
- Evidence-based medicine
- Educational technology
- PA ethics
- Healthcare delivery systems
- Professional practice issues
- Educational leadership and administration
Online master's degree programs for physician assistants are available through schools such as the University of Nebraska and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Programs typically require clinical experiences or residencies.