Becoming a Physician Assistant

Becoming a Physician Assistant

Aug 02, 2011

With the growing need for health care, especially in areas where there is inadequate or little access to services, careers in physician assistance have been increasing steadily. It might be easy to confuse physician assistants with medical assistants because the names sound similar, but each offers different standards of clinical care.

Physician assistants are licensed to practice medicine under the supervision of a physician, while medical assistants help with office administration and minor clinical tasks, such as measuring vital signs and drawing blood.

The clinical duties of a physician assistant include diagnosing illnesses, receiving medical histories, assisting the physician during surgery, prescribing medication, performing physical exams and many other similar tasks.

In some cases, physician assistants can be the primary health care provider. They often practice in typical health care settings, such as hospitals, community health centers, private practices and emergency health clinics.

Several degrees are offered for physician assistants—associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, and more recently, a doctorate degree. Even though various degrees are available for this career, each graduate must complete the same exam—the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam, which is administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants. A passing score on this exam allows one to use the title "Physician Assistant-Certified" and grants practicing rights.

To prepare for graduate study as a physician assistant, a prospective student should plan to take undergraduate courses in anatomy, biology, calculus, chemistry and psychology. Students should also maintain a good grade point average in science courses and university-required curricula.

Just as in any other graduate program, standardized tests are required for admission. Most schools require the Graduate Record Examination, though some accept the Medical College Admission Test.

Most master’s programs to become a physician assistant require about two years beyond the undergraduate level, with the first year dedicated to in-class studies and the second year integrating a mixture of classroom studies and clinical rotations, similar to those in medical school.

For more information about becoming a physician assistant, visit the University of Maryland Eastern Shore Physician Assistant Department website at