What is Involved with a Physician Assistant Program?

Physician assistants are master’s degree-prepared mid-level medical practitioners. They work under the supervision of a physician to provide patient care, such as performing physical assessments, diagnosing medical conditions, providing treatments and prescribing medications to patients. Physician assistants work in any and all specialties, from pulmonary medicine to cardiothoracic surgery, in settings such as clinics, hospitals, urgent care settings, nursing homes and outpatient centers. Physician assistants are able to change specialties as well without going back to school, which is what attracts many to the growing profession.

Gaining Admission Into a PA Program:

In order to become a physician assistant, you must apply and be accepted to an accredited physician assistant (PA) program. PA programs hold requirements for potential students such as requiring a bachelor’s degree with a set minimum grade point average (GPA), pre-requisite courses such as anatomy and physiology and general chemistry, health care experience such as shadowing a physician assistant and working as an EMT, a personal essay that explains your past experiences and why you want to be a physician assistant, and letters of reference from medical professionals and college professors. There are several universities that offer a 5-year PA program, where exceptional students attend right out of high school, earn their bachelor’s degree in 3 years and start the PA program in their 4th year.

You’ve Been Accepted: Now What?:

Once accepted into a physician assistant program, you can expect to be a full-time student for at least two years, although some programs last up to three years. During the first year of the program, students partake in classroom lectures and labs where they learn about topics such as pharmacology and patient assessment skills. These classes prepare the students for their clinical rotations, which occur during the second year of the program. Students rotate through several rotations, including pediatrics, internal medicine, psychiatry, surgery, family medicine, obstetrics and emergency medicine. Each rotation lasts several weeks, and students use this time to work directly with preceptors to apply their skills and knowledge learned during labs and classroom hours. To progress in their program, students must pass their exams and clinical rotation experiences.

Becoming a Certified PA:

After successfully completing a PA program, students sit for the PANCE (Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam), which, if they pass, enables them to practice medicine as a PA. This is a multiple-choice exam that tests future PAs on their medical and surgical knowledge. After passing the certifying exam, PAs can search for a job in their desired specialty.

Physician assistant programs are very competitive. People are drawn to this career because of its flexibility to switch specialties, short program time in comparison to earning an MD or DO and the ability to provide patients with health care at a semi-autonomous level. Students selected into PA programs often have high GPAs and several years of direct patient care experience. Although the journey through PA school is difficult, physician assistants are in high demand in the field of medicine.