Knowing what to expect if you want to get a physician’s assistant degree is important. Deciding to attend PA school after your bachelor’s degree is a big step. Physician assistant schools teach post-grads how to help doctors and surgeons provide safe, effective medical care. PAs are highly trained, licensed health practitioners who can treat patients under supervision. Unlike medical assistants, PAs don’t only do clerical or secretarial tasks like their names suggest. Physician assistants play a more active role in healing sick and injured patients for improved well-being.
Currently, there are about 118,800 PAs performing critical health care procedures. The U.S. News & World Report recognized physician assistants for having the third best job nationwide. PAs benefit from above-average career satisfaction, flexibility, pay, and job growth. The best part is becoming a physician assistant with no medical background is possible. Working as a PA won’t require spending years in medical school and residency programs. In this article, we’ll answer the most common questions from students wanting to become physician assistants.
What Does a Physician Assistant Do?
Physician assistants work alongside doctors to design and carry out patient treatment plans. PAs often join larger medical care teams focused on diagnosing and counseling patients. In some cases, PAs are principal health care providers who only consult with doctors once or twice a week. Certain states even allow physician assistants to prescribe routine tests and medicines. Physician assistants start by having conversations with patients to learn about their health status. PAs take notes of symptoms and brainstorm potential medical causes. Next, they’ll conduct a physical examination to narrow down the possibilities. Here they’ll check vital signs like blood pressure, temperature, and breathing rate. Putting all these pieces together in a puzzle to solve medical mysteries is their duty.
When a diagnosis is formed, PAs decide on the best course of treatments with physicians. Sometimes, these must be split-second decisions to prevent dire patient harm and pain. For example, patients with broken bones will need them set and splinted to promote healing. Patients with respiratory infections will need antibiotics and nasal sprays or inhalers to breathe easier. Patients diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes will need insulin dosages as well as nutrition and exercise coaching. Physician assistants must be ready to address any health challenges. They’ll schedule follow-up appointments to ensure improvement. If progress isn’t made, PAs review clinical research to find new treatments.
Most PAs are trained from a generalist approach. In other words, they’re prepared to treat the wide spectrum of patient diseases and disorders. They can deliver holistic “whole patient” care across the lifespan from birth to elder years. These PAs mostly work at primary physician offices, outpatient clinics, family practices, and schools or universities. However, some PAs choose to specialize their career like doctors do. Physician assistants interested in surgery can provide pre- and post-operative care on hospital OR teams. Emergency rooms and urgent care centers hire PAs who address life-threatening conditions in crises. PAs specialized in psychiatry treat mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. Other specialties include oncology, pediatrics, radiology, urology, and dermatology.
Who Would Make a Good Physician Assistant?
Attending PA school isn’t necessarily for everyone. Physician assistants must have certain caregiving traits. First and foremost, PAs must be skilled communicators. Speaking and listening skills are essential to engage in helpful patient dialogue. Being able to explain complex medical conditions and teach patients healthy habitats is required. Keeping doctors or surgeons informed of patient status is also imperative. PAs should be observant people with a detail-oriented mind to avoid missing symptom clues. Good problem-solving skills help physician assistants determine the best methods for curing ailments. Analytical skills are crucial to notice any abnormalities when examining the human body. Nonetheless, PAs must be compassionate scientists. Showing empathy for patients’ pain and frustration is important. Connecting with patients on an emotional level without getting attached can be too difficult for some.
Is There a Demand for Physician Assistants?
If you have all of these characteristics, then now’s an excellent time to attend PA school. Physician assistant programs are growing fast to address health care shortages. In 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted that employment of PAs would skyrocket by 31 percent. This decade will see the number of physician assistant jobs rise 37,000 to 155,700 total. From 2008 to 2018, the hiring of PAs sped up more than 300 percent! That’s much faster than the average 15 percent growth for other health practitioners. Physician assistants are increasingly hired to fill medical care roles as the number of doctors drops. By 2030, it’s expected that America will lack 120,000 much-needed physicians. PAs can prevent treatment gaps when there’s only 295 physicians per 100,000 U.S. residents. Due to booming demand, physician assistants typically have at least one job offer right out PA school.
What Does it Take to Become a Physician Assistant?
Since 1970, the American Medical Association has had strict requirements for becoming a PA. Entering this health care profession requires finishing a Master of Physician Assistant Studies degree. MPAS programs provide the educational training to perform the full extent of medical care. Some students wonder “Is PA school graduate school?” or “Is PA school medical school?” The answer is technically both! Physician assistant programs provide post-graduate courses focused on medical education. Unlike med school, PA degrees don’t involve MCAT exams, long residencies, and fellowships. Getting a Master of Physician Assistant Studies takes the same amount of coursework as most health care master’s degrees. Though not required, some PA schools now offer Doctor of Physician Assistant Studies too. At graduation, PAs must pass a certifying exam to receive licensure in all 50 states and Washington DC.
How Can You Find Quality Physician Assistant Degrees?
There are many factors to consider when choosing a good PA school. One of the most crucial factors is accreditation. Master of Physician Assistant Studies programs must be accredited to count for licensure credits. Accreditation is a stamp of approval that a course curriculum meets industry standards of excellence. Accredited programs are constantly evaluated by third-party organizations to ensure educationally sound practices. Evaluation visits are conducted every 18-24 months. Founded in 1988, the Accreditation Review Committee on Education for the Physician Assistant does these reviews. There are currently 250 ARC-PA accredited physician assistant schools available nationwide. Use the accreditation directory to search for top-notch PA schools in your desired location. Picking only accredited PA schools with continued status will make certain your program has a history of success.
Once you compile a target list of accredited physician assistant schools, start digging deeper. Look at their reputations in PA school rankings. The U.S. News & World Report has a strong ranking for top health schools across America. Research each school’s recent PANCE pass rate. Physician assistant programs with 5 or more years of pass rates over 50 percent are superb. Similarly, ask PA schools about their job placement outcomes. Read through student testimonials to get a better feel for the school climate. Compare different PA school statistics, including student-faculty ratio, retention rate, and loan default rate. Low student-faculty ratios are preferred because small PA courses give post-grads more personalized support. Look through the course curriculum and determine whether the full- or part-time schedule works for you. Also inquire about the availability of resources like simulation labs and tutoring.
Another of the biggest factors in PA school selection is price. Earning an MPAS degree after four years of bachelor’s tuition can be tough financially. The Physician Assistant Education Association reports that the average cost of public PA schools is $41,561 in-state and $72,973 out-of-state. Private universities have median PA program expenses of $76,110. Tuition and fees have increased 5.2 percent since last year. Cheaper options do still exist for $20,000 or less though. Therefore, it’s essential that you locate PA schools in your budget. Remember that physician assistant programs in your home state will charge lower prices. Ask about financial aid packages too. Assistance programs might be available to dramatically drop the sticker price on the PA school website. Funding, such as the PA Foundation Scholarships, can help you afford tuition. Graduate assistantships waive some credit costs for 10-20 hours of campus work. The National Health Service Corps Repayment option may also forgive loans you take out.
Are Physician Assistant Programs Online or Only On-Campus?
Online education is a popular graduate school trend. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that 6.65 million students are studying online. Distance master’s programs allow post-grads to attend courses anywhere 24/7 on internet platforms. Online degrees eliminate the need to commute to campus and physically sit in lecture halls. They’re ideal for full-time workers who need convenient schooling within their busy schedules. Since PA programs are hands-on, there are few online options available. However, there are some online and hybrid (blended) programs with ARC-PA accreditation. These are typically post-professional master’s completion tracks. Most online MPAS degrees are reserved for already licensed, experienced clinicians. Only those with online and on-campus sessions will fulfill initial PA certification. Online physician assistant programs still require rotations in your own community.
Getting a physician’s assistant degree online can be advantageous for some. But, there are several potential drawbacks. Online PA schools won’t provide the same level of engagement as on-campus ones. Online physician assistant majors miss out on building communication skills in the classroom. Students may feel isolated from their peers by studying mostly through a screen. Professors won’t be able to provide face-to-face feedback immediately when you raise your hand. Instead, online PA students must wait for email responses or returned phone calls. Lack of supervision can make staying on track with assignments harder. Online learners must have extreme discipline and time management skills to avoid falling behind. Reading comprehension skills are essential to ensure you can basically teach yourself the rigorous PA content. Students who struggle with using technology might be unprepared when glitches occur. Certain biased employers might also question the authenticity of online PA studies.
What Do PA Schools Look for in Incoming Applicants?
After you choose some great PA schools, filling out applications comes next. More than 95 percent of ARC-PA accredited physician assistant schools use the same form. You’ll need to create a Central Application Service for Physician Assistants account to file online. This application is typically available from April 25th to the April 15th annual deadline. The CASPA form begins asking about biographical information. Be prepared to answer some invasive questions, including citizenship status and criminal background. Next, applicants must enter their full academic history. Official registrar transcripts will be requested to prove your grades. Graduate Entrance Exam scores might be self-reported here or sent electronically. Lastly, you’ll attach all supplemental materials the PA school requires. Common add-ons include letters of recommendation, resumes of health care experience, personal essays, and clinical licenses. Completed applications are then sent right to admission offices for a $175 fee.
Generally, it takes physician assistant schools 2-4 weeks to review your CASPA application. Here the selection committee will determine your fitness for the program. Every PA school requires having a four-year bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited college. Most prefer baccalaureate majors in health care or STEM subjects. Declaring a certain pre-professional major isn’t required as long as you fulfill prerequisites though. Prerequisites are undergraduate courses you must pass in preparation for PA studies. Prerequisite courses in biology, anatomy, chemistry, statistics, and psychology are common. Physician assistant schools look for hands-on science labs and research projects. The majority of accredited PA programs necessitate cumulative GPAs of 3.0 or better on the four-point scale. Some also require 300-500 clock hours of relevant work experience in medical facilities.
Physician assistant programs evaluate applicants from a holistic approach. The committees weigh academic achievement with personal background, experience, and career promise. Having a perfect 4.0 GPA doesn’t guarantee you a spot. Earning a perfect GRE score of 340 won’t either. That said, this entrance exam does factor into acceptance decisions. The Graduate Record Exam is a computer-based, four-hour test costing $205 that probes post-grads’ abilities. Sections are broken down into verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing. Most PA schools require taking the GRE one to five years before admission. Specific score requirements vary, but reaching the 300 composite mark or higher is suggested. If your score falls short, consider re-taking the GRE again in 21 days. Timed online practice exams can help learn the GRE structure and improve your performance.
What are the Some Expected Physician Assistant Courses?
Getting into physician assistant schools is nothing compared to the hard work that follows. New PA majors should be ready to take intensive, 500- and 600-level graduate courses rooted in health science. Most physician assistant degrees require at least 75-120 credits beyond the bachelor’s. The curriculum will include core courses, concentration courses, and your chosen electives. Most first-year PAs begin with the Advanced Anatomy and Physiology course to master human body parts. The Pharmacology course examines how different drugs are used and their side effects. The Patient Interviewing course is common to practice asking people about their symptoms and behaviors. Many require a course titled Cross-Cultural Competencies to prevent biases in treating diverse patients. Other popular courses are Physical Diagnosis, Family Medicine, Women’s Health, Epidemiology, Health Economics, and Disease Prevention. It’s increasingly required that PAs take one to two semesters of Medical Spanish too.
Now, you’re likely wondering how long is PA school? The answer is usually two to three years full-time. Studying part-time, which means taking six or less credits per semester, takes longer. Students who already have a master’s or clinical licensing can graduate faster. Post-grads who need to make up skipped prerequisite courses first will study much longer. Accelerated BS/MS Physician Assistant programs can shave off a year by starting graduate courses the junior year. According to the American Academy of PAs, the average length for a Master of Physician Assistant Studies is 26 months. Didactic training, or campus courses, lasts an average 57.3 weeks. Clinical training off-campus lasts an average 53.7 weeks. Physician assistant programs only provide a mean 9.4 weeks of vacation in winter and summer total. Thus, you should expect to spend at least 24-36 months fully devoted to PA school and internships.
How Much Fieldwork Do Physician Assistant Degrees Involve?
There are many things physician assistants simply can’t learn in the classroom. Given that, every accredited PA school requires actual medical practice. PA schools have field coordinators who link students to licensed physicians for clinical rotations. Rotations are frequently the school’s affiliated hospitals, medical centers, physician offices, and clinics. Placements can be spread across urban, suburban, and rural locations, which will necessitate travel. Many PAs choose to semester abroad for practice in underserved countries like Guatemala and Haiti. Some even join the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. Interchangeably called internships, externships, and clerkships, these rotations involve seeing real-life patients. Physician assistant students are constantly supervised by both doctors and field advisors. PA interns keep detailed logs of their work and undergo many performance evaluations.
Most aspiring PAs must do multiple rotations of 8-12 weeks apiece. Physician assistant schools strive for clinical exposure in wide-ranging inpatient and outpatient settings. For instance, your rotations might include primary medicine, obstetrics, pediatrics, surgery, and psychiatric health. Clerkships are available in 40 or more sub-specialties from neurology to nephrology. In total, physician assistant degrees mandate at least 2,000 hours of clinical experience. PA students work a minimum of 30 and maximum of 80 hours per week. Shifts tend to be longer than eight hours a day, especially in emergency rooms and urgent care centers. Finishing the clinical phase requires great stamina and determination. After fieldwork, the last requirement of PA school is the capstone project. Physician assistants get inspired by medical problems in their rotations and conduct further research, which must be presented to faculty.
What are the Steps to Getting a Physician Assistant License?
Graduation is a momentous occasion for every PA student. However, the path to becoming a physician assistant still isn’t over. The United States requires every PA graduate get properly licensed. The National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants handles this process. All graduates of ARC-PA accredited colleges qualify for taking the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam. This five-hour $550 test entails 300 multiple-choice questions about critical PA topics. Test takers register for spots at Pearson VUE centers in every state throughout the year. Physician assistants are proctored while taking the test in five blocks of 60 minutes each. The PANCE is then graded on a scale of 200 to 800 with 350 being the passing score. In 2019, the exam’s national first-time passing rate was 93 percent. If you fail, don’t stress out because the NCCPA allows up to six retakes in six years.
Earning the Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C) credential isn’t even the end of your training. Certification must be maintained with continuing education to ensure your skills don’t rust. Every two years, PAs must complete 100 or more credits of medical training online or on-site. Some employers participate in the ABMS Portfolio Program to help complete the CME hours. Documentation of these 100 hours must be submitted to the NCCPA by December 31st biennially. Physician assistants can also decide to pursue Certificates of Added Qualifications. Specialty CAQ credentials are available in seven fields, such as cardiovascular and thoracic surgery, orthopedic surgery, or hospital medicine. Becoming a CAQ recipient involves passing another rigorous exam priced at $350. Submitting proof of two years of specialty experience is needed first. Physician assistants must apply for CAQ exams before April 3rd or September 11th. If passed, the Certificates of Added Qualifications last for 10 years before renewal.
Overall, deciding to get a physician’s assistant degree is both admirable and ambitious. Physician assistants are in-demand health practitioners who treat patients under a doctor’s watchful eye. This article has shown the several training and licensing steps needed to become a PA. Taking this challenging course of study certainly pays off though. In May 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor reported an average physician assistant salary of $108,430, which equals $52.13 per hour. The median income range for PAs is $90,150 to $127,220. Certified PAs in Connecticut, Washington, and Alaska have the highest mean wages of $122,260 to $125,610. Even more important than money, 95 percent of today’s PAs are satisfied with their job. Physician assistants have a profound impact in health care by diagnosing ailments, administering treatments, and helping patients cope. Pursuing a Master of Physician Assistant Studies would be the beginning of a bright career healing hurts and transforming lives.
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