Nurse practitioners and physician assistants are advanced healthcare practitioners with similar responsibilities, such as diagnosing illnesses and prescribing medications. However, their training and paths toward certification differ in significant ways. This blog post unpacks the key differences between NPs and PAs to help you determine which career path best aligns with your goals. What Is a Nurse Practitioner? A nurse practitioner (NP) is a licensed clinician who provides comprehensive healthcare to patients of all ages. An NP can work in virtually any healthcare setting, diagnosing patient conditions and prescribing medications. As of October 2022, nurse practitioners have full practice authority in 27 states, meaning that they can practice Read more
The job of a physician assistant (PA) involves collaborating with physicians, nurses, and other healthcare team members to diagnose and treat patients, prescribe medications, and educate patients about preventive care.
Accordingly, the list of education requirements for physician assistants (also known as “physician associates”) reflects the need for preparation to meet the demands of their profession.
In this blog, we’ll uncover precisely what those PA requirements are, and how you can start working toward meeting them.
Is There a Standard Educational Path for PAs?
Becoming a physician assistant demands a well-thought-out educational and professional route. From earning an undergraduate degree (typically in one of the sciences) to take a “gap” year to gain hands-on clinical experience in healthcare, many aspiring PAs follow a well-defined path to meet their goal.
To fulfill physician assistant school requirements and ultimately work as a licensed PA, your track will look something like this:1
- Earn a Bachelor of Science degree in a relevant field of study (such as health science or nursing) from an accredited university, and complete prerequisite courses (more on this later).
- Accrue hours in the healthcare experience (HCE) and patient care experience (PCE) as required by your specific PA program (many programs require at least 1,000 HCE or PCE hours).2 However, some PA programs do not require HCE/PCE.
- Register with the Centralized Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA), where you can apply to multiple PA programs at once. Begin the process of gathering transcripts, letters of recommendation, and lists of HCE and PCE hours to apply for your chosen physician assistant program.
- Earn a Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies (MSPAS) and obtain a minimum of 2,000 supervised clinical hours while studying for the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE).
- Pass the PANCE and receive the Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C) credential, which is offered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants.
- Acquire a license in the state(s) you wish to practice.
- Complete 100 hours of continuing medical education (CME) every two years to maintain your license.
- Pass recertification every 7–10 years (depending on which recertification pathway you choose).3
Are PA requirements extensive? Absolutely. And yet, given that PAs are directly responsible for the health, and lives, of others, this is also appropriate.
The Prerequisites: Which Courses Do PAs Need to Take?
Prior to applying to a master’s degree program in physician assistant studies, a prospective PA student will typically need to complete the following prerequisite courses as an undergraduate:4
- Human Anatomy
- Psychology (General)
- Organic Chemistry
- English Composition
- Medical Terminology
- Human Physiology
What Classes Do PA Candidates Take in Physician Assistant Master’s Programs?
The MS in Physician Assistant Studies (MSPAS) curriculum encompasses the areas of study above, but at the graduate level. It also includes classroom instruction in several additional fields, including Medical Decision Making, Medical Ethics, Clinical Laboratory Science, Behavioral Science, Pathophysiology, Microbiology, and more.
Clinical rotations are conducted under the supervision of a clinical preceptor across various medical/surgical environments, including:
- Acute care facilities
- Emergency rooms
- Long-term care facilities
- Ambulatory clinics
- Medical practices
Because physician assistants are medically trained as generalists, they earn their clinical rotation hours in several areas of medicine, such as:5
- Family medicine
- Internal medicine
- Emergency medicine
- General surgery
How Long Does It Take to Become a PA?
So, how long is PA school? Completing your MS in Physician Assistant Studies, including your clinical rotation hours, typically takes a little more than two years.
This means that all in all, the average amount of time it takes to complete a bachelor’s degree, optionally accrue HCE/PCE hours, earn a master’s degree, and study for the PANCE is between seven and eight years.
Keep in mind, however, that timing may vary, depending on your life circumstances and other obligations.
Who Becomes a Physician Assistant?
Those interested in hands-on clinical experience—working directly with patients across an extensive array of medical environments—are often drawn to the profession of physician assistant.
As mentioned above, many incoming students in physician assistant graduate programs have some prior HCE and PCE. They may have experience as:6
- Emergency medical technicians
- Lab assistants
- Certified nursing assistants
- Registered nurses
- Medical assistants
- Emergency room techs
- Surgical techs
Most PA schools require a minimum of 1,000 hours of healthcare experience or direct patient care experience. Gaining real-life, hands-on experience in the medical field can help give you confidence that you’re making the right decision before fulfilling your PA school requirements and applying for admission.
It’s important to note, though, that physician assistant school requirements vary by program. Some PA schools do not require HCE or PCE, reasoning that students will gain all the experience and skills they need in the program. Also, applicants’ HCE/PCE hours are self-reported on CASPA and are not verified by the schools. Be sure to conduct substantial research into your programs of interest so that you can guarantee to meet (or exceed) their requirements.
Is Becoming a PA Part of the Path for Aspiring Doctors?
Rarely, individuals choose to make the transition from their role as a physician assistant to that of an MD, but most PAs expressly choose their role because it permits them to begin working directly with patients faster and at a lesser tuition cost. However, becoming a PA is nonetheless a rigorous, intense process; second only to physicians, they have the highest level of clinical training in the medical profession.7
Physician assistants set out to become part of a collaborative medical team while working one-on-one with patients, often developing their diagnoses and treatment plans under the supervision of a doctor.
Additionally, even though “assistant” might sound secondary, PAs have many of the same duties as licensed physicians. PAs’ scope of practice varies from state to state and is determined through state licensing requirements.8
Do Nurse Practitioners Have the Same Educational Requirements as PAs?
Some people may assume that physician assistants and nurse practitioners (NPs) have nearly the same education. This is understandable, as the professions handle many of the same duties, including:
- Conducting physical exams
- Performing medical histories
- Providing general patient care
- Educating and counseling patients on their treatment plan(s) and preventive measures
- Ordering and analyzing diagnostic tests
- Diagnosing illnesses and injuries
- Prescribing medications
However, there are key differences between a PA vs NP, including differences in their educational requirements.
Nurse practitioners complete a graduate nursing program, while PAs attend a graduate program based on a medical model. Furthermore, physician assistants must complete 2,000 clinical rotation hours, as opposed to the 500–650 hours required of NPs.
Is Becoming a PA Worth the Time and Effort?
While the answer to this question depends on the individual, PAs have the opportunity to make a profound, enduring impact on the health and lives of others. Therefore, those who wish to center their career around helping others will likely find the time and effort worth it.
A career as a PA also affords these benefits:
- Healthy salary – The annual median income for physician assistants is $121,530.9
- Job availability – PAs are in demand throughout the United States, with an employment growth rate of 28%. This is projected to lead to over 38,400 PA job openings between 2021 and 2031.10
- Room for advancement – Physician assistants may elect to specialize in a certain sphere, such as rheumatology or women’s health. Specializations can often lead to higher pay.
- Career satisfaction – In a survey published by the National Academy of Medicine, 75% of PAs reported feeling “happy at work.”11 U.S. News & World Report rates the PA profession as the second-best job in healthcare—and the third-best job in general.12
Are There Similar Jobs in Healthcare?
There are several other roles in healthcare that also allow for direct patient care and/or medical research, and may lead to job satisfaction. Here’s a sampling:
- Family nurse practitioner
- Certified registered nurse anesthetist
- Registered nurse
- Clinical researcher
Physician assistants are increasingly in demand because they boost access to medical care—particularly in rural and underserved regions. They derive job satisfaction and personal meaning from helping people live healthier, longer lives.
USAHS is excited to announce its new Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies, with applications opening in April 2023. Learn more about the PA program structure, accreditation status, and what sets the USAHS PA program apart by visiting our MSPAS program page today.
The University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) is developing a Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies (MSPAS) program. We will begin accepting applications in April 2023 for our first cohort, which will start in January 2024. The program will be held in person on our campus in Austin, Texas, and will consist of a four-trimester didactic phase and a three-trimester clinical phase. Students will complete seven core rotations in a variety of outpatient settings and hospitals, plus two elective rotations of their choice.
USAHS’ MSPAS program has applied for Accreditation-Provisional from the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). USAHS’ MSPAS anticipates matriculating its first MSPAS class in January 2024, pending achieving Accreditation-Provisional status at the September 2023 ARC-PA meeting. Accreditation-Provisional is an accreditation status granted when the plans and resource allocation, if fully implemented as planned, of a proposed program that has not yet enrolled students appear to demonstrate the program’s ability to meet the ARC-PA Standards or when a program holding Accreditation-Provisional status appears to demonstrate continued progress in complying with the Standards as it prepares for the graduation of the first class (cohort) of students.
In the event that the program is not granted Accreditation-Provisional status by the ARC-PA, students accepted into USAHS’ MSPAS program will receive a full refund of their deposit and the program will not matriculate in January 2024.