What’s the Difference Between a Physician Assistant and a Doctor?

Physician Assistant vs. Doctor

A physician assistant career can be a suitable option for individuals interested in health care and a high level of responsibility. What is a physician assistant (PA)? They are health care professionals who assist doctors and share patient care responsibilities with them. PAs are also trained and licensed to carry out many of the same essential tasks that doctors do.

While PAs and doctors both have the training and expertise to perform a wide array of health care services, there are some key differences. The path to become a PA is shorter, for example, while physicians have more extensive educational and licensure requirements.

What Does a Physician Assistant Do?

Physician assistant duties include a variety of clinical tasks. Physician assistants examine, diagnose and treat patients under the supervision of a licensed physician. PAs can prepare casts or splints, suture small wounds and interpret medical tests. Additional responsibilities include prescribing medications, creating and implementing treatment plans, counseling patients about care and treatment options and providing pre- and post-operative care.

What Does a Doctor Do?

Doctors can perform a full range of medical care, diagnose and treat illnesses, interpret medical tests and prescribe drugs. They also counsel patients on diet, hygiene and preventive health care. Doctors may need to be on-call for emergencies. The specific day-to-day tasks of a doctor will vary depending on their type of practice. Areas of primary care include internal medicine, family practice or pediatrics. Doctors can also choose specialty and subspecialty fields such as radiology, gynecology and immunology.

How Do I Become a Physician Assistant?

Aspiring physician assistants inevitably want to know how to become a physician assistant so they can better understand the unique requirements they may need to fulfill. Below is a closer look at the education, residency, license and certification requirements for physician assistants.

Physician Assistant Education Requirements

PA students are required to have at least three-plus years of hands-on health care experience — this could be working as an EMT, paramedic or nurse.

PAs typically need to complete a two-year physician assistant master's program, usually after acquiring a bachelor’s degree. PA school requirements can be met within online physician assistant programs. Online PA programs are an efficient option for meeting physician assistant degree requirements. It’s important to note the importance of finding an accredited physician assistant program online that also ensures students will complete their clinical hours. 

Both licensure and the PA degree require a substantial number of hours of hands-on clinical experience; this is in addition to any online coursework that must be completed.

Physician Assistant Residency Requirements

You may also be wondering, “Is a physician assistant residency required?” Post-grad PA residencies are optional, but they do exist. The PA residency provides extensive clinical training, which is something that is also provided within physician assistant training programs. The clinical rotations that PA students are required to complete expose them to a variety of focus areas, including:

  • Ambulatory medicine
  • Behavioral medicine
  • Cardiology
  • Emergency medicine
  • Gastroenterology
  • General surgery
  • Infectious diseases
  • Internal medicine
  • Oncology
  • Pediatrics
  • Primary care
  • Various surgical specializations
  • Women’s health

Physician Assistant License Requirements

Before you can practice, you need to get licensed in your state. All states require that PAs graduate from an accredited PA program and pass PANCE, the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam. This comprehensive exam for the PA license covers medical content and professional best practices.

Physician Assistant Certification Requirements

The National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants, the only certifying organization for physician assistants in the United States, offers the physician assistant-certified (PA-C) designation to signify a higher level of clinical knowledge, clinical reasoning and other medical skills. To maintain national certification as a physician assistant, you need to complete 100 hours of continuing medical education credits every two years and take a recertification exam (the Physician Assistant National Recertifying Exam, or PANRE) every 10 years.

How Do I Become a Doctor?

For individuals interested in becoming a doctor, below is a closer look at the education, residency, license and certification requirements for doctors.

Doctor Education Requirements

A doctorate or doctoral degree in medicine is required for all physicians, but the requirements for becoming a doctor in the United States may vary by specialty. In general, doctors complete a four-year undergraduate degree program, take the Medical College Admission Test and then spend four years in medical school, which is very competitive. In addition to transcripts, MCAT scores and letters of recommendation, most schools require interviews with members of the admissions committee.

Doctor Residency Requirements

After medical school, you need to have three to seven years in a residency in order to become a doctor. The amount of time required for residency depends on the field of practice and whether specialty training is required.

Doctor License Requirements

A medical license is an occupational license that permits a person to legally practice medicine. A medical school graduate must receive a medical license to legally be called a physician. The process typically requires testing by a medical board.

Doctor Certification Requirements

Every physician is required to be licensed to practice medicine in the state in which they work; however, not all physicians are board-certified in the specialties they practice. Board certification is an extra step a physician may take to assure a patient of that specialty training.

PA vs. Doctor Careers

Doctors and PAs work in a lot of the same environments and may focus on different types of medical specialties. Since PAs are trained in many types of specialties, they can transition between them — often without additional training — once they are licensed.

PA vs. Doctor Salaries

Another important factor to consider is the physician assistant salary vs. the doctor salary. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that the median salary for physician assistants in 2018 was $108,610 per year, while median annual pay for physicians and surgeons was equal to or greater than $208,000.

When it comes to job outlook from 2018 to 2028, the BLS predicts that demand for physicians and surgeons is expected to grow 7%, and PA demand is expected to grow by 31% — which means that the number of physician assistant jobs is growing.

PA vs. Doctor Job Specializations

Practice settings for PAs and doctors may include hospitals, outpatient facilities, urgent care facilities, virtual care centers (telehealth) and educational settings. According to the BLS, physician assistants are in high demand since they can provide a wide variety of services, can be trained quickly and help to provide more affordable health care options. PAs and doctors alike work in the following areas in different capacities. 

Dermatology Specialties

These PAs and doctors specialize in skin-related diseases and treatment. Dermatology clinicians also diagnose and treat conditions related to the hair and nails. As part of diagnosis and treatment, practitioners in this field often perform in-office procedures that include biopsies and removal of lesions.

Radiology Specialties

These PAs and doctors specialize in diagnosing and treating disease and injury using medical imaging techniques such as X-rays, computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), nuclear medicine, positron emission tomography (PET), fusion imaging and ultrasound.

Cardiovascular Specialties

These PAs and doctors specialize in heart- and cardiovascular system-related diseases and treatment. It is common for practitioners in this specialty to work in a variety of settings, including the office, outpatient clinic and within the hospital.

Deciding whether to become a physician assistant or a doctor depends upon the amount of time and money you want to spend on education and training, the level of occupational authority and responsibility you want to hold, and the salary you would like to make. If you choose the physician assistant path, and later change your mind, you may be wondering, “Can a PA become a doctor?” The answer is yes — as long as you meet all of the necessary requirements that are outlined here.

Disclaimer: Data in this article is accurate as of 2018–2019. Teach.com is not responsible for any data updates that may occur after August 2019.