Physician Assistant vs. Doctor

If building a promising career in the medical field is your ambition, becoming a physician assistant (PA) or medical doctor (MA) will be the two offers facing you.

You may be torn between them, knowing they have good prospects. Both require rigorous education and training before having a successful career in them.

The salaries of physician assistants and doctors are also high, which could be another reason they get much attention. But the question has always remained, “What is the difference between a physician assistant and a doctor?”

We will help you uncover the issue surrounding physician assistants vs. doctors, what they do, how to become one, and others. In the end, you can make a thoughtful and insightful decision regarding which path to follow.

Who is a Physician Assistant?

A physician assistant is an advanced licensed healthcare provider trained to perform nearly the same roles as a medical doctor.

It was founded in 1967 to fill a gap experienced in the healthcare system. Since then, over 168,300 PAs have practiced in the USA.

Moreover, it is considered one of the essential fields in contemporary medicine. Individuals in this field help people access healthcare without a shortage of licensed medical doctors.

Who is a medical doctor?

Medical doctors are expansively trained in conventional medicine and licensed to practice as physicians. They are equipped to diagnose and treat diseases with modern medical inventions and interventions through surgery, x-rays, and prescription medications.

In addition, doctors may work in a healthcare or internal medicine environment or other fields with extensive training and education. They can work as a subspecialty in gynecology, geriatric, obstetric, or pediatric medicines.

Related: 8 reasons why genetic counseling is important

What’s the Difference Between a Physician Assistant and a Doctor?

Since you have waited till this very moment, I recommend you sit tight, as I clearly unravel the difference between Physician Assistant vs. Doctor.

Individuals interested in healthcare can become physician assistants, which requires an outstanding responsibility. Physician assistants are healthcare professionals who help doctors in caring for patients. They are trained and licensed to perform their duties like doctors.

However, there are limits to what a physician assistant can do, as against what a doctor does. The study path to becoming a physician assistant is shorter, while doctors study extensively with stricter licensure requirements.

A Physician Assistant (PA) is not a doctor. Although PAs are medical professionals and provide many of the same services as doctors, they do not have the same level of training.

Doctors (also known as physicians) generally spend four years earning a bachelor’s degree, then four years in medical school, followed by a residency that lasts between three to seven years, depending on their specialty. Some physicians further specialize with additional years of fellowship training.

Physician Assistants, on the other hand, usually earn a bachelor’s degree (often in a science or healthcare-related field), and then complete a PA program, which is usually about two years long. Some PAs might also complete a residency program, which is typically optional and lasts about one to two years. PAs are licensed to practice medicine under the supervision of a physician and can diagnose and treat illnesses, prescribe medication, and perform certain procedures.

What Does a Physician Assistant Do?

Physician assistants, or PAs, carry out a variety of clinical duties. Their duties include the following:

  • Examine, diagnose, and treat patients under a doctor’s administration.
  • Prepare casts or splints, interpret medical examinations and suture minor wounds.
  • Prescribe medications
  • Create and implement treatment plans
  • Counsel patients about treatment options
  • Provide pre and post-operative care to patients

What Does a Doctor Do?

Unlike physician assistants, doctors carry out more detailed medical practices. Some of the functions of doctors in the hospital include the following:

  • Diagnose and treat illnesses
  • Interpret medical tests and prescribe drugs
  • Counsel patients on hygiene, diet, and preventive healthcare
  • May need to be on call-call for emergencies

In addition to the above, doctors can have different day-to-day activities depending on their kind of practice. Doctors’ areas of primary assignment include internal medicine, pediatrics, or family practice. They can also go for specialty and subspecialty fields like gynecology, immunology, and radiology.

How to Become a Physician Assistant

Becoming a PA helps aspiring individuals understand better the exclusive requirements they must fulfill. Here are the education, residency, licensing, and certifications, requirements for physician assistants:

Education requirements: First, a physician assistant is required to acquire an education. Applying for a PA education typically includes undergraduate transcripts with at least a GPA of 3.0, GRE scores (excluding the MCAT), a CV, a personal essay, and a letter of recommendation. You can submit your applications through the Centralized Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA).

Aside from undergraduate education, physician assistants will complete a two-year physician assistant master’s education. If you are busy, you can attend an online program to meet the requirements. However, ensure the online program is accredited. You must also complete your clinical hours to qualify for the certificate.

After the education, you can go for at least three years of practical healthcare experience. You could also obtain expertise from working as an EMT, nurse, or paramedic.

Gaining a PA degree and licensure requires many hours of practical training. If the program requires online coursework, you must also complete it.

Residency requirements: Some people wonder if residency is needed for a physician assistant. In reality, obtaining a residency is not compulsory, although it is necessary. The residency offers a wide range of clinical training similar to the one the student obtained during the PA training programs. Some of the clinical rotations of a physician assistant include the following:

  • Ambulatory medicine
  • Internal medicine
  • Emergency medicine
  • Behavioral medicine
  • Primary care
  • Surgical specializations
  • Oncology
  • Pediatrics
  • Cardiology
  • Gastroenterology
  • Women’s Health
  • General surgery
  • Infectious diseases

License Requirements: Before practicing as a physician assistant, you need to obtain the licensure according to your state. Each state mandates P.A. graduates to pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE), covering medical content and professional practices.

Certification Requirements: The United States has a certifying organization for physician assistants called the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants. It offers the Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C) designation as proof of a higher level of knowledge in the field. You must undergo a 100-hour continuing medical education credit every two years to qualify for this certification.

Physician Assistant vs. Doctor

How to Become a Doctor

If you desire to become a doctor, you will acquire education, residency, licensing, and certification, as explained below:

Education Requirements: all doctors in the United States must obtain a doctorate or doctoral degree in medicine. Firstly, doctors must complete a four-year undergraduate degree program, take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), and complete a four-year medical school. Besides, you must present a transcript, MCAT scores, and letters of recommendation. Some schools also mandate you undergo an interview session with the admission committee members.

Residency Requirements: After medical school, you must obtain three to seven years of residency to qualify for a doctor. The field of practice determines the number of years and whether specialty training is necessary.

License Requirements: A license qualifies a doctor to practice in their field. The medical board decides the process to obtain this medical license. At this point, they are qualified to be addressed as a physician.

Certification Requirements: You must be licensed to practice in the state you reside and work as a physician. However, not all medical doctors are certified by a board in their specialty. With board certification, a doctor is one step ahead in proving their qualification. To become certified, the physician must obtain a United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), followed by board certification, ongoing CME, and recertification requirements. The state of residency determines the period of the recertification exam.

Physician Assistant vs. Doctor Careers

Although medical doctors and physician assistants can work in the same setting, their specialties differ.

However, for a physician assistant to perform the roles of a doctor, they will need to transition by obtaining a license.

Physician Assistant vs. Doctor Salaries

Even though physician assistants attend school for a lesser period, it does not make the gap in their salaries to be so huge. Also, note that earning potential should not be your primary career concern. It is only an aspect of the complete picture.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the physician assistant’s median yearly income is around $121,530 as of May 2021. The top ten percent earn over $164,620 yearly. The job of PA is expected to grow between 2018 and 2028 by 31%.

For medical doctors, the median yearly income is around $208,000. The highest-paid doctors are the cardiologists, and they earn around $353,970 yearly. Anesthesiologists, earning $331,190, are the second-highest paid annually. The third-highest paid is $198,420 annually. The outlook from 2018 to 2028 for doctor job growth is 7%.

What are the areas of specialization for a physician assistant and a doctor?

Physician assistants and doctors can work in hospitals, virtual care centers, urgent care facilities, outpatient facilities, and educational settings.

Both physician assistants and doctors are in high demand in the U.S., according to the Bureau for Labor Statistics (BLS). Moreover, they can work in dermatology, radiology, and cardiovascular specialties.

If you wish to transition from a physician assistant to a doctor, you may need to obtain the requirements to qualify you.

A final thought on Physician Assistant vs. Doctor

The healthcare industry is filled with rewarding professions, in which physician assistants and medical doctors are among the top-ranking.

Both play a crucial role in improving the healthcare system. They can save lives and positively impact their communities health and wellness. If you are considering either of them, your decision is excellent as long as you can meet the conditions.


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