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Doctor or Physician Assistant?

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Doctors or Not

You might actually be talking to a physician assistant.

The role of a physician assistant isn’t something the average person generally understands, or is even aware of. In fact, more often than not, physician assistants are mistaken for interns, or doctors in training. This has to do with the generally limited experience the average person has with the medical field, but also the relatively new role of physician assistants, as the field originated only during the 1960s in America.

In general, there are four main professions a patient is likely to encounter in a medical facility, but only those of the doctor and nurse are commonly understood. Doctors are of course the people in charge of a patient’s care, while nurses generally administer that care as directed. The fields of medical assistant and physician assistant are the other two professional areas, with medical assistants often mistaken for nurses, and physician assistants mistaken for doctors.

This has to do with the fact that physician assistants have the ability to examine, diagnose, and even plan treatment courses. They’re also regulated by varying government bodies, depending on the country they operate in. For example, in the U.S., the AAPA regulates and licenses them. Medical assistants, on the other hand, tend to be mistaken for nurses or assistants, and require much less education.

For physician assistants, residencies are required, and the specific job requirements can vary by region. That said, they have excellent job prospects. Median pay is about $86,000 per year, and requires a Master’s degree for entry level work.

The work is far from easy. Doctors are notorious for their long hours, grueling schedules, and attention to numerous patients and care regimens. Supporting doctors means keeping up with them, interacting with nurses, and answering questions or providing direction to medical assistants as well.

World of Technology

Physician assistants have access to a world of technology.

One of the key employment benefits, however, is the large number of job openings, particularly as medical operating costs are being reduced in many hospitals. This has resulted in a more competitive market for doctors. There are many online services catering to the physician assistant. Jobs, resources, and even training can be quickly and easily sourced by state or region.

More importantly, transitioning to the role of a doctor is made much easier by the training and experience such work provides. This can often bridge the gap between expensive student loans doctors are typically burdened by, allowing a few years to practice as an assistant before completing the necessary further education required to become a doctor.

Likewise, nurses, paramedics, and medical assistants can take a step up in their careers. While there is a lot to it, for many, the approach of taking it one or several steps at a time is becoming a preferred and more affordable method. This is especially true in light of the fact that 28% of doctors saw a cut in pay in 2012. That same source cites the total cost over the decade it takes to become a doctor as nearly a million dollars.

Thus the demand for physician assistants is increasing rapidly, with many hospitals and primary care facilities looking to replace some doctors with lower-cost care providers. Additionally, the extra years spent earning income can be applied to the costs of becoming a doctor, meaning less debt burden, and an overall higher lifetime earning potential.

Image Credits: Careers in Medicine, Doctors or Not, World of Technology

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About Henry Buell

A world traveled analyst, Henry has lived through political upheaval, revolutions, and war. He writes from a different perspective, with a passion for life, tempered by experience. More information can be found on Henry Buell's website.
  • Michelle Pronsati

    Thank you for drawing attention to physician assistants (PAs). As the editor of a peer-reviewed journal for physician assistants and nurse practitioners, I would like to add some detail. First, PAs are trained and licensed to diagnose and treat illness; the majority have a master’s degree. They operate similarly to physicians and in fact train with medical students during PA school. PA students perform clinical rotations in various medical specialties, alongside medical students (these are not residencies). PAs are not licensed by the AAPA; that is their professional membership organizations. All PAs must pass a national certifying examination after graduation from PA school. After they earn national certification, they apply to be licensed in the state where they will work. To learn more about PAs, visit this fact sheet: Thank you for the opportunity to promote the great work of PAs!

    • Henry Buell

      You’re welcome Michelle. Thanks for your great and informative comments too!

      Researching this article was an eye opener for me, as I honestly believed everyone was either a doctor or a nurse until writing this. Learning about PAs and how they work was fascinating, and I expect many of our readers will feel the same way.