How to Become a Physician Assistant (PA)

PA discussing results with nurse

A physician assistant (PA), also known as a physician’s assistant, is a licensed medical provider who works alongside doctors, surgeons and other medical professionals to examine, diagnose and treat patients. Many people feel called to become healthcare providers such as PAs because it enables them to make a positive difference in the lives of those in their community. Now is a great time to consider a career in medicine.

Understanding the Responsibilities of a Physician Assistant

Physician assistants work in all healthcare specialties, from pediatrics to geriatrics and in everything in between. PAs work under the supervision of physicians. However, at some facilities, a PA may serve as the primary care provider. This is especially true in rural areas where not enough doctors are available. PAs acting as primary care providers still collaborate with a physician, who is usually present at the facility a few times a week.

Some of the specific duties of a physician assistant can include the following:

  • Question patients about their medical histories
  • Conduct physical examinations and review patients’ symptoms
  • Request diagnostic tests and interpret the results
  • Administer treatments
  • Provide patient education and counseling

Licensed PAs are authorized to prescribe medications. The types of treatments they provide can vary from one state to the next. In general, however, a PA may set broken bones, suture wounds and administer vaccinations.

Preparing in High School for a Physician Assistant Career

If you are still in high school and thinking of going into medicine or health science, you can begin preparing right away. Make an appointment with your guidance counselor to discuss your career goals. Your guidance counselor can help you strategically structure your schedule, which might mean adding more science and mathematics courses. Whenever possible, try to take electives in medicine-related topics, such as anatomy.

You can also bolster your college application by seeking out relevant volunteer opportunities and part-time jobs. Look into volunteering options at nursing homes and local hospitals. You can also check for volunteer openings at local blood drives. You might even find an internship opportunity geared toward high school students at the county department of health. Not only will this experience boost your college application, but it will also allow you to determine whether a career in medicine is the right choice for you and whether a physician assistant program is something you want to pursue.

Earning an Undergraduate Degree in Medical Studies

Most physician assistants need a master’s degree, but first, you will need an undergraduate degree. Some universities may offer a pre-physician assistant degree program, such as a Bachelor of Science in Biology geared toward aspiring PAs. This would be the ideal choice for you because of its focus on medical studies.

If your school does not offer a PA-specific bachelor’s degree, you can look for the next best option. Consider majoring in biology, biochemistry, chemistry, nutritional sciences or exercise science, for example. In addition to choosing your major wisely, you may want to consider adding a minor. Some appropriate minors for future PAs include psychology, sports physiology and a foreign language. A foreign language minor is relevant because physician assistants work with patients of all backgrounds.

While working toward your bachelor’s degree, it can be helpful to look into internship opportunities and job shadowing experiences. These will strengthen your graduate school application while simultaneously helping you determine whether a career in medicine truly appeals to you.

Applying to an Accredited Graduate Program

The majority of PAs are required to have a postgraduate degree from an accredited PA program. More than 200 PA degree programs have been accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant.* Expect two years of full-time study to complete your physician assistant degree.

These programs offer a blend of classroom instruction and hands-on training. The curriculum varies slightly from one program to the next. However, in general, you can expect an in-depth study of the following subject areas:

  • Human anatomy, physiology and pathology
  • Pharmacology
  • Clinical medicine
  • Physical diagnosis
  • Pediatrics
  • Internal medicine
  • Emergency medicine

PA students must complete multiple clinical rotations during their studies. A clinical rotation is much like an internship. It takes place in a healthcare setting, such as a hospital or nursing home, and it focuses on one particular area, such as pediatrics or emergency medicine. Students gain real-world experience working directly with patients under close supervision.

Earning Your Certification and License

After graduating from an accredited PA program, aspiring physician assistants must earn a certification. The National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants administers the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam. Aspiring PAs can take the certification exam up to six times within the first six years of graduating from their PA degree program. Individuals who do not pass the exam within those parameters must successfully complete an unabridged, accredited PA degree program once again.

Once you have passed the certification exam, you will need to obtain licensure. Each state establishes its own licensure requirements. It’s wise to check the licensure requirements and procedures in the state in which you plan to practice before beginning your physician assistant studies.

Begin working toward an exciting career as a PA by earning your physician assistant degree at Grand Canyon University. Apply to enroll in the Bachelor of Science in Biology with an Emphasis in Pre-Physician Assistant program, which instills foundational skills and knowledge in key areas such as biology, chemistry, anatomy, physiology and pharmacology. Click on the button above to Request Info about our medical studies degree options.

Retrieved From:

* Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, Accredited Programs in February 2020.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.

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