How to Become a Physician Assistant
Physician assistants often treat minor injuries, instruct and counsel patients, and order or carry out therapy.
Physician assistants typically need a master’s degree from an accredited educational program. Earning that degree usually takes at least 2 years of full-time postgraduate study. All states require physician assistants to be licensed.
Most applicants to physician assistant education programs already have a bachelor’s degree and some healthcare-related work experience. Although admissions requirements vary from program to program, most programs require 2 to 4 years of undergraduate coursework with a focus in science. Many applicants already have experience as registered nurses or as EMTs and paramedics before they apply to a physician assistant program.
Physician assistant education programs usually take at least 2 years of full-time study. About 200 education programs were accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, Inc. (ARC-PA) in 2014. Almost all of these accredited programs offer a master’s degree.
Physician assistant education includes classroom and laboratory instruction in subjects such as pathology, human anatomy, physiology, clinical medicine, pharmacology, physical diagnosis, and medical ethics. The programs also include supervised clinical training in several areas, including family medicine, internal medicine, emergency medicine, and pediatrics.
Sometimes students serve in one or more clinical rotations in these areas under the supervision of a physician who is looking to hire a physician assistant. In this way, clinical rotations may lead to permanent employment.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
All states and the District of Columbia require physician assistants to be licensed. To become licensed, candidates must pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) from the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). A physician assistant who passes the exam may use the credential “Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C).”
To keep their certification, physician assistants must complete 100 hours of continuing education every 2 years. The recertification exam is required every 10 years.
In addition, state licensure laws require physician assistants to hold an agreement with a supervising physician. Although the physician does not need to be onsite at all times, collaboration between physicians and physician assistants is required for practice.
Communication skills. Physician assistants must explain complex medical issues in a way that patients can understand. They must also effectively communicate with doctors and other healthcare workers to ensure that they provide the best possible patient care.
Compassion. Physician assistants deal with patients who are sick or injured and may be in extreme pain or distress. They must be able to treat patients and their families with compassion and understanding.
Detail oriented. Physician assistants should be observant and have a strong ability to focus when evaluating and treating patients.
Emotional stability. Physician assistants, particularly those working in surgery or emergency medicine, should be able to work well under pressure. They must remain calm in stressful situations in order to provide quality care.
Problem-solving skills. Physician assistants need to evaluate patients’ symptoms and administer the appropriate treatments. They must be diligent when investigating complicated medical issues so that they can determine the best course of treatment for each patient.
Some physician assistants pursue additional education in a specialty. Postgraduate educational programs are available in areas such as emergency medicine and psychiatry. To enter one of these programs, a physician assistant must be a graduate of an accredited program and be certified by the NCCPA.
As they gain greater clinical knowledge and experience, physician assistants can earn new responsibilities and higher wages. For example, experienced physician assistants may supervise other staff and physician assistant students or they may become an executive leader of a healthcare organization.