The Difference Between Physician’s Assistants and Doctors

Becoming a doctor can be a long and daunting task. If you are interested in practicing medicine, but don’t like the idea of going to school for 6-10 years, you might consider becoming a physician’s assistant (PA). The differences between primary care physicians and physician’s assistants are very few. Below, we will highlight just what a PA is and how they differ from regular doctors.

First, a physician’s assistant is a medical profession that operates under the supervision of a doctor. This means the PA and the doctor share patient care responsibility. With that being said, most physician’s assistants still operate with a measure of independence and autonomy. They are even able to see patients without a doctor present. The scope of their abilities include: diagnosing illnesses, developing and carrying out treatment plans, assisting in surgical procedures, suture wounds, counsel patients on healthcare treatment and conduct physical exams. And in 39 states, PA’s are also able to write prescriptions.

While becoming a PA is no small feat, it definitely requires less schooling than a traditional physician. PA’s typically earn a four year degree, have some medical experience and enter an accredited PA program, which generally lasts 25 months. They also must successfully complete a one year clinical rotation where they will gain hands on medical knowledge. PA’s must also complete ongoing continued education classes and are subjected to regular retesting of their medical expertise. Because PA programs encourage students to already have some medical experience, many enrollees are nurses, emergency medical technicians (EMT’s) and paramedics. Conversely, traditional physicians must earn a four year undergraduate degree, a two year medical degree (MD) and successfully complete a 3-7 year residency.

The PA program was first introduced in the 1960′s. The health care industry saw a serious shortage and an uneven distribution of primary care physicians across the country. To combat this, Dr. Eugene Stead of Duke University Medical Center created the first physician’s assistant program in 1965 in hopes of generating more highly trained health care professionals. He based his curriculum on the fast-track training doctors received during World War II. Today, about 50% of all physician’s assistants in the United States work in the primary care field. This includes working in family medicine, internal medicine and pediatrics. About 25% of PA’s work in surgical medicine. Becoming a physician’s assistant is a great alternative to the extensive process of becoming a traditional physician. It offers many of the same rewards and benefits without as much schooling.

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