How to Become a Physician Assistant
With one of the highest starting salaries in the healthcare industry, a career as a physician assistant is highly desirable. If you’re considering this rewarding career, you’re probably wondering how to become a physician assistant. How much schooling is involved? How long does it take? How can you determine which schools are the best?
Here, we’ll take a look at how to become a physician assistant. We’ll cover all the questions previously mentioned and more, to give you a good sense of how to become a physician assistant and begin caring for patients while helping others.
The Basics – What is a Physician Assistant?
Sometimes referred to as a doctor’s assistant, a physician assistant (or physician’s assistant) is just what the name implies. The position is much more involved than that of a medical assistant. Instead of paperwork or other minor tasks within a doctor’s office or hospital, a physician assistant actually assists a doctor or surgeon, working very closely together in order to give patients the best possible medical care.
Physician assistants are generally more advanced in their training than nurses and work under their supervising doctor’s license and perform many of the same tasks as a doctor. While the job is always supervised, physician assistants enjoy a great deal of freedom and responsibility.
The tasks of a PA vary depending on where you work, and in what type of facility. You might take patients’ medical histories, prescribe and administer medications (with some restrictions), treat minor wounds, order x-rays and lab tests, and interpret the results of those tests.
In rural and inner-city areas, the scope of a PA’s responsibilities are much broader. These areas often have difficulty securing a full-time physician. Many of them rely on physician assistants who work full-time and consult with their supervising physician on the more complex cases. In these settings, the PA is the “face” of medical assistance for most patients, and so the level of responsibility is far greater than a setting in which a doctor is present at all times.
A big part of learning how to become a physician assistant has to do with schooling. There are several options, each with different advantages.
Your first step is to obtain a college degree. This is a requirement for most physician assistant programs. The most logical degree is a two year Associate’s degree in a related medical field, one which allows you to begin studying subjects such as biology and anatomy.
There are both two-year and four-year physician assistant programs. In addition, many PA’s go on to pursue a Master’s degree in the field. It is recommended that you obtain the highest level of education possible. When learning how to become a physician assistant, you’ll quickly see that education translates into job opportunities and earning potential. If two certified PA’s apply for the same job, it’s likely that the individual with more education will be selected. In addition, having more education opens the door for higher-paying jobs upon graduation, instead of working your way up.
In short, it’s possible to obtain certification and work as a PA with an Associate’s degree. However, experts recommend higher education, since it means more expertise, more job opportunities, and higher earning potential.
When learning how to become a physician assistant, the exact courses you’ll be required to take will vary depending on your school. However, there are a few common courses which are almost universally required:
- Physical Diagnosis
- Clinical Medicine
- Medical Ethics
- Human Anatomy
These courses will give you a solid foundation of knowledge regarding the medical field. In addition to general requirements, you’ll have the opportunity to choose a specialty. This is not required, and many physician assistants spend their entire careers in general practice.
However, if a certain field of medicine interests you, you’re free to choose that field as your focus. If you don’t have a specialty in mind but would like to focus your career, don’t worry – in learning how to become a physician assistant, you’ll be presented with many different specialties from which to choose. Some possibilities include:
- Emergency Medicine
- Prenatal Care
- Family Medicine
- Internal Medicine
One of the best things about learning how to become a physician assistant is the realization that this career doesn’t limit you to just one specialty. Unlike doctors, PA’s have the freedom to move between several areas of medicine. Many PA’s report that this freedom is one of the most enjoyable parts of their career.
Prospective students who are considering how to become a physician assistant are often unsure about school. With so many programs being offered, how can you choose the best one? The most important choice you can make in determining how to become a physician assistant is choosing an accredited school. The Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, or ARC-PA, is the board responsible for granting accreditation. A list of fully accredited schools is available on their website. Attending an accredited school is absolutely essential, since a degree from a school which is not accredited does not meet certification requirements.
Once you graduate from an accredited school, your next step is to take the national certification exam. This examination is known as the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam, or PANCE. Your school will either arrange testing or connect you with the nearest testing facility. A physician assistant can’t work without passing the PANCE.
In learning how to become a physician assistant, you’ll be pleased to discover that the future is bright for this career. Physician assistants are expected to see job opportunities growing in the coming years. In addition, the entire healthcare industry is expanding due to our aging population. This is one of the reasons why healthcare is considered to be one of the very few “recession proof” industries, meaning that even during tough economic times, layoffs are unlikely.
As you learn how to become a physician assistant, you’ll quickly see that this is a highly desirable career choice. You’ll enjoy freedom in your work, lots of responsibility and reward, and an unusually high starting wage.
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