by Christine Lee
Pre-health students who are interested in treating patients but are concerned about the time commitment and intensity of medical school may be interested in becoming physician assistants (PAs).
Physician assistant programs typically last two years, and students can obtain the title of Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C) without undergoing a residency or internship. With this degree, physician assistants can mostly perform the same tasks as physicians: diagnosing and treating, ordering and interpreting tests, assisting in surgery, and writing prescriptions.
“Even though becoming a doctor was a likely choice, I didn’t want to dedicate so much time in school,” Rebecca Mall, a PA at LAC+USC Medical Center, said. “I wanted to begin my future already–have a family and work.”
PAs act as primary caretakers, similar to physicians, and they are normally required to take similar classes as medical students. However, there is just one year of preclinical study and one year of clinical experience, during which students participate in rotations.
While most aspiring physicians will continue their education with an internship and residency in their chosen specialty, physician assistants can start working immediately after graduation and in a variety of specialties.
I love the fact the PAs don’t have to choose a specialty. They have to acquire general knowledge of everything,” Mall said. “I have worked in Orthopedics, Pediatrics, and Emergency.”
With the ability to practice generally in different specialties, physician assistants naturally handle cases that are less complicated than a physician’s. They must also be under the constant supervision of a physician and thus have a shared responsibility for the patient rather than a full responsibility as the supervising physician would.
“Although I don’t get to make final calls on diagnosis for patients, having to refer to doctors gives me the opportunity to learn and reinforce my decisions,” Mall said. “I also love working with my colleagues.”
Pre-health students who think becoming a physician assistant is a suitable career path for them may also benefit from learning about being a nurse practitioner. In practice, nurse practitioners and physician assistants essentially perform the same tasks.
Like PAs, nurse practitioners hold a Master’s Degree and can diagnose and treat most common illnesses. Both need to take state board exams and licensing and accreditation exams every few years. However, both require less schooling than physicians and thus allow more flexibility and time for family.
The main difference between a PA and nurse practitioner lies in the training. Physician assistant programs typically follow a medical model, preclinical courses before clinical experience. Aspiring students can enter the program without a former occupation in the health care field.
Nurse practitioners, on the other hand, normally have ten years of nursing experience before getting their Master’s Degree.
Thus, pre-health students may want to consider if they would prefer to attend professional school after working as a nurse and gaining experience or if they would prefer applying to a physician assistant program without as much prior experience and following training that is more similar to that of medical school.