What is Involved With a Physician Assistant Program?

phyasstWith the increasing demand for physician assistants, and the excellent pay associated with physician assistant jobs, this may be a field you’ve heard a lot about. Before you decide whether the work is right for you, however, you may be asking what’s involved in becoming a physician assistant. What kind of educational program will you be doing in order to qualify in the PA field? 

Background and Qualifications

According to the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) the minimum requirement to get into a PA program is at least two years of college, though you will be better served by a bachelor’s degree. The degree, whether two or four year, should be in behavioral sciences or something related. Actual health care experience is also helpful.

Accredited Physician Assistant Programs

It’s important to make sure that any Physician Assistant program in which you enroll is accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). Only those who graduate from accredited programs will be able to take the national certification exam for physician assistants.

Both graduation from a program that has been accredited and a passing grade on the certification exam are required for you to get a license with your state, which you will need if you’re going to practice. You can go to the ARC-PA website to find a list of accredited programs by state. Currently there are 181 such programs in the United States, of which 165 grant masters or professional level degrees.

Some universities now run approximately five year programs where you can complete a bachelor’s degree in health sciences and also a master’s level degree in physician assistant studies within that time frame. If you do not enroll in that sort of program, and already have a bachelor’s degree, you will generally find that accredited PA programs run about 27 months.

Coursework and Practical Skills

The coursework for physician assistant is rigorous. Physician assistants work in primary care under the supervision of medical doctors, and they can do many things that a medical doctor can do – one reason they’re demand, especially as many doctors turn to specialized fields instead of primary care. A PA can conduct physicals, diagnose illnesses, order laboratory tests, make patient referrals, counsel patients, prescribe medications and a host of other things. Some even assist in surgeries. You may end up working in a hospital or a clinic or private practice.

Because of the wide range of skills required, students will take coursework to learn a diversity of medical knowledge. You can expect courses in biology, chemistry, medical science, anatomy, physiology, ethics, psychology, health care and other areas, along with clinical seminars and supervised clinical practice.

Much like medical doctors, physician assistants never stop learning. So once you complete a PA program, your education isn’t complete. In order to keep up with the changing field, a PA is expected to do about 100 hours of continuing education every two years, and to take another certification exam once every six years.

Over the next several years, already healthy job growth for physician assistants is expected to climb steadily. Despite the length and rigors of a physician assistant program, this is a health care field well worth investigating.

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