Physicians Assistant Studies

What Will I Learn in a Physician Assistant Program?

What Will I Learn in a Physician Assistant Program?
A physician assistant studies program provides a broad education in medical knowledge, population and public health, evidence-based medicine, clinical skills, cultural competency, biomedical ethics, healthcare leadership, and critical thinking. Image from Pexels
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Lucy Davies May 27, 2022

In physician assistant programs, PA students undertake first-year didactic coursework in clinical medicine and second-year clinical rotations in areas like pediatrics and emergency medicine.

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If you’re considering becoming a physician assistant, it’s a career that seems to have it all—brains, brawn, and beauty. Or, more accurately, the employment equivalent of that triumvirate: job security, high pay, and a bright future.

Analysts project high demand for physician assistants over the next decade. Data from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) forecasts a shortage of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians by 2034, with shortfalls in both primary and specialty care. (Additionally, there’s a shortage of physicians in many rural areas across the US right now.) Physician assistants can help fill this looming gap in healthcare.

Because they function semi-independently, physician assistants are uniquely positioned to help in support roles for physicians in various settings and specializations. PAs work under the direction of physicians in all areas of medicine, including primary care, pediatrics and family medicine, internal medicine, orthopedics, and obstetrics and gynecology. In addition, they can supplement primary care in communities and practices that need it most.

Physician assistants work across clinical settings—in emergency medicine and clinical practice—but are most concentrated in physician’s offices (53 percent) and hospitals and medical centers (26 percent), with the remainder in outpatient care or full-time educational or government positions. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2021 the highest median annual wages were paid to PAs working in outpatient care centers ($128,430); state, local, and private hospitals ($127,240); and in physicians’ offices ($121,010); with educational and government positions paying in the lower six-figures.

Of course, first you need training. You’ll receive yours in a master’s-level physician assistant program. What will you learn in a physician assistant program? This article addresses that question and also discusses:

  • What is a physician assistant?
  • What will I learn in a physician assistant program?
  • What is a physician assistant master’s?
  • Top physician assistant master’s programs

What is a physician assistant?

A physician assistant is a licenced clinician who works under a physician’s supervision to provide numerous healthcare services to patients. PAs may take medical histories, prescribe medication, conduct physical exams, diagnose illnesses, develop treatment plans, assist in surgery, and perform medical research. In short, they do many of the same things your primary care doctor does.

The role of the PA originally emerged in response to a physician shortage in the 1960s. Inspired by the World War II model for fast-tracking Navy hospital corpsmen, PA training entails a comprehensive education program that rapidly moves PAs into the workforce. Thanks to their schooling, PA students arrive in the workforce equipped with strong clinical experience and professional competencies.

What will I learn in a physician assistant program?

A physician assistant studies program provides a broad education in medical knowledge, population and public health, evidence-based medicine, clinical skills, cultural competency, biomedical ethics, healthcare leadership, and critical thinking.

The University of Pittsburgh PA studies program curriculum offers a good example of the typical format—first-year didactic coursework and second-year clinical rotations—each divided into three terms.

Year one coursework for physician assistant students at Pitt includes fall semester sequential classes like Intro to the PA Profession, Intro to Clinical Medicine, and others in human anatomy, health policy, behavioral medicine, pharmacology, pathophysiology, epidemiology—all taught by physicians, surgeons, pharmacists, nurse practitioners, and genetic counselors to provide a broad scope of perspectives in the profession.

In year two (after completing the didactic portion of the PA program), students are sequenced in clinical rotations for exposure to the range of medical practices and specializations as part of their clinical year. Clinical rotations are hands-on experiences under the guidance of a preceptor/mentor in a variety of medical settings and health professions, including family medicine, women’s health, pediatrics, emergency medicine, psychiatry, general surgery, orthopedics, primary care, and an elective rotation.

The physician assistant’s role offers variety of specializations in different areas of medicine. PA students can specialize in anesthesia, cardiology, radiology, pediatrics, dermatology, or emergency medicine. Additional training may be needed for sub-specialty areas, and advanced training is often required.

Some schools offer degrees from different health science divisions that provide a particular emphasis on a program. Emory University offers two physician assistant tracks. The first is a 29-month long program from the Emory University School of Medicine: a Master of Medical Science in Physician Assistant Degree (MMSc-PA). The second offers two degrees in conjunction with the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University: a Master of Medical Science in Physician Assistant Degree or a Master of Public Health Dual Degree (MMSc-PA/MPH).

What is a physician assistant master’s?

A physician assistant master’s is a graduate-level degree from a PA program accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, Inc. (ARC-PA). The degree requires both classroom (didactic) learning and clinical rotations.

How long does it take to complete a physician assistant master’s?

Most physician assistant programs take about three years to complete, including all classwork, group work, labs, and clinical rotations.

Once you have completed the PA master’s program, you will be eligible to take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE), administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants, Inc. (NCCPA). Successful completion of this exam allows you to use the title Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C) and pursue licensing in your state.

With all these requirements met, you are ready to practice as a PA, provided you continue to maintain your national certification with 100 hours of continuing medical education (CME) credits every two years and a recertification exam every ten years.

What are the admissions requirements/prerequisites for a physician assistant master’s?

Physician assistant master’s programs are competitive, so you’ll want to begin research into schools while still pursuing your bachelor’s degree. You will need at least two years of college-level behavioral and basic science as well as coursework in chemistry, physiology, anatomy, biology, psychology, statistics, and microbiology.

You’ll also need to have a set number of relevant work hours in patient care (the number varies by program) to qualify for any PA master’s program. Opportunities for this hands-on training can be found working as a paramedic or EMT, as a medic or a medical corpsman during military service or in the Peace Corps, as a lab technician, medical assistant, ER or surgical tech, or as a registered nurse.

The Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA) provides a full list of requirements (standardized tests, GPA requirements, prerequisite coursework, etc.) for each of their accredited programs.

Top physician assistant master’s programs

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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