How to become a Physician Assistant

Are you interested in working in the health care sector and treating patients? Qualifying to become a physician can take many years of study that not all Americans can access without accumulating extortionate debts that they will have to continue repaying for decades to come, but enrolling as a physician assistant is a great opportunity.

This profession not only costs less than obtaining a full medical license, but it is also not as stressful of a position as that of a fully-fledged doctor. 

As a physician assistant, you will also take home a healthy salary. According to the latest figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, you can earn around $110,000 fulfilling this role. 

The role of the Physician Assistant

As the name indicates, physician assistants support the work of physicians, acting as their first point of contact and most highly qualified professional after them in the medical hierarchy at a healthcare center. 

In the medical chain of command, physician assistants stand between doctors and nurses. Their role largely depends on their specific work environment. 

Generally they conduct many of the same procedures and examinations as that of physicians – including the diagnosis and treatment of patients. However, their work is overseen by a fully qualified doctor.

In parts of the US where there is a shortage of doctors, physician assistants may see their role come with greater responsibilities. 

They could become the highest qualified medical professional that patients see, which would mean that they would be responsible for their diagnosis and the prescribing medication

If you are interested in pursuing a career in surgery, this role would allow you to directly assist the surgeon during operations, helping open and close incisions and making sure that the patient is stable throughout the medical procedure. 

The process of becoming a Physician Assistant

In order to start working towards this particular career pathway from the age of 18, you need to earn a high school diploma that includes science credits from subjects such as physics, maths, biology, and chemistry. These are essential to get onto the right program at college. 

There are a variety of pathways you can take in higher education to become a physician assistant, the most popular being doing a bachelor’s degree, which takes 4 years to complete. 

It is highly recommended to major in a science subject, as it will help you secure a place on a relevant postgraduate course. For example, you could consider degrees in biology, chemistry, or health sciences. 

It is important to note that some postgraduate courses will require you to have earned credits in particular subjects on your bachelor’s degree. 

Before you can continue onto a postgraduate physician assistant program, you need to gain patient care and general healthcare experience in a surgery, health center or hospital. You have to total a combined 1,000 hours of experience.

While most future physician assistants choose to take a longer break and complete the required work experience over the course of a year after gaining their bachelor’s, some motivated students start accumulating their 1,000 hours while still working towards their undergraduate degree. 

Having completed your 4 years of college studies and gained your required work experience, you are ready to enroll in a postgraduate physician assistant program

Make sure that your course is accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA) as otherwise, your qualification may not be valid. 

Your postgraduate program will typically last 2 to 3 years and they are notoriously difficult to complete.  However, having completed so much education up to this point and with the finishing line in sight, do not lose motivation!

In addition to gaining hands-on experience in patient care, you will also have the opportunity to study a wide variety of areas including epidemiology, dermatology, and microbiology. As you progress through your course, you will have the opportunity to specialize in a particular medical field.  

Even though some students choose to study an undergraduate course and subsequently do a postgraduate physician assistant program in two separate steps, there are some programs accredited by the ARC-PA that combine the undergraduate and master’s degrees. 

As these specifically prepare you for this job, the classes you take are tailored for this particular career pathway and thus may only take 5 years to complete them and equip students to pass the final examination. 

These courses are recommended for students who are certain that they want to become a physician assistant after completing their high school diploma.

If you are not fully settled on this career pathway, you may find something that interests you more on your traditional undergraduate degree.

READ MORE: Health & Social Care careers • Misconceptions

The Physician Assistant certification

Once you have finished your master’s course, you are ready to take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) examination. You have 6 attempts to pass it over the course of 6 years. If successful, you have earned the right to practice as a physician assistant in the US. 

However, your education in this role will continue for life. Every two years you need to gain a minimum of 100 continuing education credits, while you have to pass the PANCE exam again every 10 years in order to recertify. 

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