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The Difference Between a Medical Assistant and a Physician Assistant

Updated on December 4, 2011

There seems to be a misconception that a medical assistant (MA) and a physician assistant (PA), are one and the same. However, these two healthcare occupations are quite different and should not be confused. To make things a little clearer, some key differences will be examined to help clarify what sets these two fields apart.

Education and Training
Medical assistants do not require formal training or education. At the very least a high school diploma will do, however some type of formal training is generally preferred. Depending if they choose a one or two year program, they can earn either a certificate/diploma or associate degree. In general, training is offered through vocational-tech high schools, postsecondary vocational schools, community colleges, junior colleges, 4-year colleges and universities.

On the other hand, physician assistants are required to have either a bachelor's degree and GRE or MCAT scores when applying to a PA educational program. The majority are graduate programs leading to master's degrees in Physician Assistant Studies (MPAS), Health Science (MHS), or Medical Science (MMSc). Mainly offered through allied health and medical schools, academic health centers and 4-year colleges, PA training programs usually takes 2 to 3 years to complete during undergraduate education or post-graduate studies, for a total of 4–7 years of postsecondary education.

Licensure and Certification
Even though there is no licensing for medical assistants, some states require them to pass a test or a course before performing more advanced procedures, such as taking X-rays or giving injections. While certification is voluntary and not required, it does have its career advantages. A certified medical assistant generally has more employment opportunities, which often leads to a higher paying salary.

Physician assistants on the other hand, must pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE). This certification is required for licensure in all states. In order to stay certified, they must complete 100 hours of continuing medical education every 2 years, and every 6 years, pass a recertification exam.

Job Duties
A medical assistant performs routine administrative and clinical tasks such as scheduling appointments and filling out insurance forms to recording vital signs and assisting the physician during patient examinations.

By contrast, a physician assistant is licensed to practice medicine under the direction of physicians and surgeons. Formally trained to provide diagnostic, therapeutic, and preventive healthcare services, PAs can also – in most states – prescribe certain medications. Conversely, a medical assistant cannot make any independent diagnoses, assessments or prescribe medications.

When it comes to salary, physician assistants have a much higher earning potential than medical assistants. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the estimated median annual salary for a physician assistant is around $87,000, whereas the medical assistant wage is only $29,000.

Both medical assistants and physician assistants carry out important duties that are essential in any medical practice. No matter which career path you decide on, be assured that you have chosen a field where you can truly make a difference.


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