There are individuals in the healthcare profession who reach a crossroad where they wonder if they should become a nurse practitioner or a physician assistant. But how do you decide? You want to make an informed decision and to do that you want to understand the difference between the two positions.
Neither a nurse practitioner nor a physician assistant are doctors. But they are both mid-level healthcare professionals who take on some of the responsibilities of a doctor such as making diagnoses, creating treatment plans and writing prescriptions. In a healthcare system that is complex, multilayered and expensive, providers serving in these positions are often exactly who you need to see, making your personal care more cost-effective for you.
Although PAs and NPs may compete for the same positions, they build on different education and training. While you are a student, you’ll make a choice based on one of two healthcare philosophies and approaches.
An NP education is built upon more of a nursing tradition. More often than not it means you are interacting with patients as whole people, focusing on health and wellness. PAs, like doctors, approach your healthcare from a more reactive standpoint. You come in with a problem then are told your diagnosis and recommended treatment. Most of the time there is not a lot of conversation about anything else that’s going on in your life. Nevertheless, both provide excellent treatment; it’s more about what style of interaction you prefer.
What does a PA do?
As the title suggests, PAs help doctors, surgeons, and a variety of medical professions with multiple tasks that help hospitals and clinics function efficiently. Responsibilities include. . .
- Reviewing patient records.
- Conducting examinations.
- Providing treatment.
- Educating and counseling patients.
In some practices, you may have a choice of having your primary care provider be a medical doctor or a physician assistant. In others, a physician may be your primary doctor, but you’ll see a PA who updates your doctor as needed.
Characteristics of a PA
In addition to your medical skills, a successful PA must also possess certain characteristics.
Emotionally calm and stable – The emotional and busy work environment of a PA is stressful so remaining calm will help reduce any anxiety the patients may feel.
Detail oriented – Many PAs enter their own notes on a computer while they talk with patients. Records and treatment plans must be detailed so that upon any return visits, the medical history of a patient is on file.
Works well with minimal supervision – Much of a PA’s job is autonomous, so you must be able to take initiative and be confident in your skills.
Collaborative – You will be working with doctors, nurses, patients, patients’ families, surgeons, and medical professionals of all types. So you must be able to communicate effectively with a sense of partnership.
Compassionate – Each person’s problem is unique to them. So displaying compassion for their perspective and emotional state is crucial to the therapeutic relationship.
Problem-solving – As a PA you will be diagnosing and treating patients, which sometimes involves a little detective work. You must able to problem solve and do so quickly.
Listening – Genuine kindness comes across with patients and garners trust. This is one of the best soft skills you have in your toolbox for diagnosing and treating patients. Without trust, you may not get all the information you need to assess your patient’s situation correctly.
Physician assistant education
The educational path for a physician assistant does not take as long as becoming a medical doctor, but the journey is equally rigorous.
Step 1: Four-Year Science or Medical Degree
When enrolling in an undergraduate program, it is a good idea to major in a science. PA programs look favorably on degrees in the following areas:
Your grades are vital when applying to a PA program. Most accredited PA programs require a minimum cumulative grade point average of 3.0 on a 4.0 scale. Admissions committees will look closely at your transcript and expect to see sufficient pre-requisite courses they are necessary for you to be successful in a rigorous medical program. Your electives should include courses like:
- Organic Chemistry.
- Anatomy and Physiology.
- General Biology with lab.
Supportive courses that lead to critical and analytical thinking are:
- College Algebra or Statistics.
- Developmental Psychology.
- Anthropology or Sociology.
- Medical Terminology.
Step 2: Enroll in a Physician Assistant Program
Most PA programs will take 2-3 years to complete. Before enrolling make sure the program is accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA).
In addition to the appropriate undergraduate courses, other admissions requirements may include:
- Some kind of previous medical experience. This can include patient care as a volunteer or as a paid healthcare professional.
- Shadowing a physician assistant.
- Demonstrating an interest in your community as a volunteer.
- Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores – prepare thoroughly for this exam by taking a review course.
- Admission essay.
- In-person interview.
- Letter(s) of recommendation from previous instructors or medical professionals.
- Life support certification – they may accept you earning this as a condition of full acceptance.
- Background check.
- Drug screening.
Initially your first year focuses on topics such as health, medication, anatomy, and the health care industry as a whole. You will also get a taste of clinical experience. Additional content could include pharmacology, pathology, and diagnosis techniques.
In your second year, the focus advances into more complex topics like general surgery, gynecology, and behavioral medicine.
One of the most convenient options for obtaining a PA degree, and eventually your license, is an online program. This allows you to work your program schedule around work and family obligations.
Once you have your PA degree from an accredited program, you become eligible to sit for the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination, also called PANCE, which is administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants. Upon passing, you can add the designation Physician Assistant-Certified, or “PA-C” for short.
It is always best to take the PANCE and pass it as soon as possible after graduation. But should you run into difficulties, the organization allows you six attempts to take it as long as you do so within six years of program completion. If you exhaust the total number of retakes, or six years passes, you lose your eligibility and have to re-establish it by completing another accredited PA program start to finish.
It doesn’t matter where you live in the United States. If you want to work legally as a PA you will have to acquire licensing. State requirements vary slightly, so check your region for any additional licensing criteria.
In addition to your license, state law also requires you to hold an agreement with a supervising physician. This agreement establishes a formal collaborate between the PA and the physician even if the physician doesn’t work on site.
Without exception, professionals working in a healthcare setting must engage in continuing education. This ensures you stay current on changes in medicine, diagnosis and treatment techniques, and medical technology. To maintain your certification, you must complete 100 credits every two years across different categories. You can stay updated on re-certification requirements by checking the NCCPA site. It is your responsibility to complete these credits promptly.
Physician assistant salary & job outlook
As you are considering a career as a physician assistant, you want to think about the return on your time and financial investment.
According to information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2018 physician assistants made a median income of $108,610 per year. But the best news for PAs is that through 2026 the excepted job growth is 36%, which is much faster than average. As a PA, you can make a very nice living and expect stability in your job.
A physician assistant has an opportunity to work in all kinds of disciplines. You may decide to focus on primary care, which is general in nature. Or you could specialize in psychiatry or geriatrics. The field is wide enough for you to spend your time in an area of medicine that interests you the most. However, each job, state and region has specific regulations, so the hours you work and the amount of physician oversight required will vary.