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Physician Assistant

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.

Pre-PA students are completing the necessary prerequisite courses in order to apply to PA programs. Pre-PA students are also seeking a way to gain hundreds (in many cases thousands) of hours of paid medical experience over the next few years before applying to a PA program.

What type of pre-program education is required? 

In most cases, a four-year undergraduate degree. Some programs may accept students without a Bachelor’s degree, but it is difficult to be competitive without one.

How long is a typical PA program?

PA Programs accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA), are approximately 27 months long and include classroom instruction and clinical rotations. (from AAPA.org)

Coursework required for most schools

Pre-requisite coursework varies widely from school to school; students are highly encouraged to check the websites of PA programs to determine how to best prepare for applying.  Most programs will require at least:

  • One year of chemistry with labs*
  • One course each of human anatomy and physiology with labs**
  • One course in  microbiology with lab
  • One course in statistics
  • One course in psychology

 *Schools can be very particular about which chemistry series they prefer.  It is important to consult websites of schools you are interested in, and then check with your adviser.

*AP credits: Many schools do accept AP coursework but not all. For example, U of California Davis and U of Southern California do not.

** UW does not offer a human anatomy course with lab to undergraduate students. Biological Structure 301 is taught in Spring Quarters, but does not offer a lab. Therefore it is recommended to take this class somewhere else. Many schools offer a Human Anatomy & Physiology 1 and 2 course sequence, in which case both those classes need to be taken at the same school. However, some schools offer human anatomy as a separate course, in which case it can be combined with UW’s Biology 118 and lab 119.

Other frequently required or recommended courses:  General biology, genetics, organic chemistry, biochemistry, additional courses in social/behavioral sciences, languages (some schools require coursework in Spanish), medical terminology, public speaking.

Remember that even though one school’s prerequisite list may look light compared to another’s, PA programs nation-wide are highly competitive, and the coursework in the program will be quite rigorous.  

Major Information

PA schools are flexible in the choice of undergraduate major. Like medical schools, they care that you do well in your major (as well as your prerequisite courses) and that it reflects your interests. It is wise to also think about alternate future careers in the event that you change your mind, or are not admitted to a PA school.

Experience required for most schools

PA is different from most other health professions in that it requires a very large number of hours of paid health care experience.   In most cases, to be competitive, 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 competitive for the UW’s MEDEX program, for example, a student needs to present a minimum of 4000 such hours. At the other end, Western University of Health Sciences’ PA program accepts volunteer hours (but has a much lengthier prerequisite list).  So, just as with your prerequisites, you 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; the list of possibilities is quite long.  But as with course prerequisites, the experiential preparation requirement varies as well.  You should check school websites. 

Career Information

Physician assistants (PAs) provide health care services under the supervision of doctors.

Physician assistants perform a range of medical duties. They work in all areas of medicine including primary care, family medicine, and emergency medicine. 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.

PAs can also do more complex tasks, such as:

  •  Set simple fractures
  • Run electrocardiograms (EKGs)
  • Sew up wounds
  • Close incisions after surgery

Many PAs work in primary care areas, such as family medicine, general practice, or pediatrics. They set up goals and overall health plans for patients. They counsel patients about medications and teach them healthy living techniques.

Some PAs manage doctors' offices and order supplies and equipment. PAs also may supervise technicians and other medical office assistants. In areas where doctors are in short supply, PAs may be the only health care providers available on a regular basis. In this case they are required by state law to consult with physicians. (from the Washington Occupational Information System, WOIS)

Student Groups

Actively participating in student groups can be an invaluable experience. The student groups not only offer services the pre-health students find helpful, such as hosting speakers and group volunteering events, but they also provide a community of students who have similar interests and goals. By taking on an active role, students can also develop their leadership skills.

 At UW, there is a Registered Student Organization of students who are currently studying in the UW PA program. There is no pre-PA specific student group. However, there are many pre-health groups and you can find them at the Directory of Registered Student Organizations (link).

Applying to PA Schools

The CASPA

The Central Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA)

Many (however not all) PA programs use the CASPA for admissions.  This centralized service allows applicants to apply to any number of programs with one application.  The application cycle typically begins in mid-April and application deadlines vary by program.  Student must carefully research the deadlines for all schools in order to submit timely applications.

Some PA schools require the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) as part of the application.

The PANCE

National Certification and State Licensure (from AAPA.org)

Only graduates of accredited PA programs may take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants. PA graduates who pass the PANCE use the title Physician Assistant-Certified or PA-C.  A list of accredited programs can be found on the ARC-PA website.

In order to practice, PAs must obtain a state license. All states require that PAs graduate from an accredited PA program and pass the PANCE.

Online Resources