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Health careers corner: focus on Physician Assistants

Photo courtesy Gap Medics

The American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) defines a physician assistant (PA) as a medical professional who works as part of a team with a doctor. Physician assistants are graduates of accredited PA educational programs and are nationally-certified and state-licensed to practice medicine with the supervision of a physician. Specific duties and how much they need to be supervised by a physician vary by state.

Physician assistants provide basic care. They gather information from patients, perform physical exams, and order lab tests. They explain test results and review treatment options with patients and their families. If more than one treatment is available, they help patients decide which option to choose. Many PAs work in primary care areas, such as family medicine, general practice, or pediatrics, but they can also work in other care areas and do more complex tasks, such as: set simple fractures, run electrocardiograms (EKGs), sew up wounds, and close incisions after surgery.

What type of education is required?

Currently most PA programs have become Masters degrees and remaining Bachelor degree programs must change to Masters no later than 2021, and many are changing sooner. Therefore it is best for students to plan on obtaining a Bachelor degree. Any major is fine as long as students include prerequisite coursework. Courses required for most schools are:

  • one year of chemistry with labs,
  • a two course sequence in human anatomy and physiology with labs,
  • one course in microbiology with labs
  • one course in statistics
  • one course in psychology.

Schools can be very particular about which chemistry courses they prefer and may have requirements different from the course list above. It is important for students to consult websites of schools they are interested in.

Experience required for most schools

PA is different from most other health professions in that many schools require a very large number of hours of paid health care experience. In most cases, to be admitted, a student needs to present about 2000 hours of paid health care experience at the time of application. There is variation here, too, though. To be accepted to the U of Washington’s MEDEX PA programs, for example, a student needs to present a minimum of 4000 such hours. At the other end, Western University of Health Sciences’ PA program in California accepts volunteer hours (but has a much lengthier prerequisite list). So, just as with prerequisites, students will need to research the websites of schools of interest.

What kind of health care experience should you look for? Many students become certified nursing assistants, medical assistants, phlebotomists, emergency medical technicians, surgery technicians or are coming out of the armed services medical corps. Students who are graduates of foreign medical degrees can use that experience, but also need to get US health care experience.

What else?

It is very important for students to shadow doctors and physician assistants and perhaps nurse practitioners, so that they can understand similarities and differences before making a decision. PA programs are very popular. Average gpa’s at some schools are in the same range as medical schools (3.4-4.0), though there is significant variation by school. 

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