How to Become a Physician Assistant

Training and Education Jobs and Salaries

Physician assistant programs usually last at least two years. Admission requirements vary by program, but many require at least two years of college and some health care experience. All States require that physician assistants complete an accredited, formal education program and pass a National exam to obtain a license.

Physician assistant education programs usually last at least two years and are full time. Most programs are in schools of allied health, academic health centers, medical schools, or four-year colleges; a few are in community colleges, the military, or hospitals. Many accredited physician assistant programs have clinical teaching affiliations with medical schools. In 2008, over 136 education programs for physician assistants were accredited or provisionally accredited by the American Academy of Physician Assistants. More than 90 of these programs offered the option of a masters degree, and the rest offered either a bachelors degree or an associate degree.

Most applicants to physician assistant educational programs already have a bachelors degree. Admission requirements vary, but many programs require two years of college and some work experience in the health care field. Students should take courses in biology, English, chemistry, mathematics, psychology, and the social sciences. Many physician assistants have prior experience as registered nurses, and others come from varied backgrounds, including military corpsman or medics and allied health occupations such as respiratory therapists, physical therapists, and emergency medical technicians and paramedics.

Physician assistant education includes classroom instruction in biochemistry, pathology, human anatomy, physiology, microbiology, clinical pharmacology, clinical medicine, geriatric and home health care, disease prevention, and medical ethics. Students obtain supervised clinical training in several areas, including family medicine, internal medicine, surgery, prenatal care and gynecology, geriatrics, emergency medicine, psychiatry, and pediatrics. Sometimes, physician assistant students serve one or more of these rotations under the supervision of a physician who is seeking to hire a physician assistant. The rotations often lead to permanent employment.

All States and the District of Columbia have legislation governing the qualifications or practice of physician assistants. All jurisdictions require physician assistants to pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination, administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) and open only to graduates of accredited physician assistant education programs. Only those successfully completing the examination may use the credential "Physician Assistant-Certified." To remain certified, PAs must complete 100 hours of continuing medical education every two years.

Every 6 years, they must pass a recertification examination or complete an alternative program combining learning experiences and a take-home examination. Physician assistants must have a desire to serve patients and be self-motivated. Physician assistants also must have a good bedside manner, emotional stability, and the ability to make decisions in emergencies. Physician assistants must be willing to study throughout their career to keep up with medical advances.

Some physician assistants pursue additional education in a specialty such as surgery, neonatology, or emergency medicine. Physician assistant postgraduate educational programs are available in areas such as internal medicine, rural primary care, emergency medicine, surgery, pediatrics, neonatology, and occupational medicine. Candidates must be graduates of an accredited program and be certified by the NCCPA. As they attain greater clinical knowledge and experience, physician assistants can advance to added responsibilities and higher earnings. However, by the very nature of the profession, clinically practicing physician assistants always are supervised by physicians.