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Career profile: Physician and medical assistants

Could you be a physician or medical assistant?

If you are considering a career in the field of medicine, you would be hard pressed to find one better than a physician assistant (PA) or medical assistant (MA).

Physician Assistants

A recent annual rating of careers based on salary and job prospects in MONEY magazine and Salary.com ranked the job of a PA as number five out of the top 50.

PAs earn on average at least $75,000 per year, with a 10-year job growth predicted at nearly 50 percent.

In the United States, PAs are non-physician clinicians, licensed to practice medicine with a physician’s supervision. This supervision, in most cases, need not be direct or on-site and many PAs practice in remote or underserved areas in satellite clinics. PAs can treat patients and, in most states, prescribe medicine, and in some states in the U.S. they carry a DEA number that gives them authority to prescribe controlled medications like narcotics. PAs in surgical practices also serve as first assists in surgery. PAs provide medical services that are reimbursed under Medicare and third party insurances.

PAs can also pursue additional education in a specialty such as surgery, neonatology or emergency medicine. Postgraduate programs can be pursued in emergency medicine. Postgraduate programs can be pursued in emergency medicine, surgery, pediatrics, internal medicine, rural primary care, neonatology and occupational medicine. Like most other medical careers, PAs must continue studying so as to keep updated with the latest medical procedures. With experience, PAs can take on added responsibilities and be assured of higher earnings. However, they can never become independently practicing physicians. Physician assistants held about 59,000 jobs in 2006. By 2014, that number is expected to climb more than 92,000. According to the American Academy of Physician Assistants, of the certified PAs in clinical practice as of last year, just over 56 percent of them worked in the offices and clinics of physicians. About 36 percent were employed by hospitals. The rest were mostly working in public health clicnics, nursing homes, schools, prisons, home healthcare agencies and the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.

Currently, there are more than 130 accredited PA programs in the U.S. They are all accredited by one body — the Accreditation review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). A majority of them are mast’ers degree programs (requiring GRE for entry), but some are available as an undergraduate major. A number of these undergraduate programs are making a transition to graduate-level training.

Physician assistants and nurse practitioners both provide similar services in most states, the major distinction being that nurse practitioners are registered nurses by trade. Nurse practitioners require more training than physician assistants: an associates degree in nursing, a bachelor’s, then a master’s degree in nursing will be required. Both are also known as advanced practice clinicians or mid-level practitioners.

Medical assistant 

PAs should not be confused with medical assistants, who perform routine clinical and clerical tasks in a physician’s office. A medical assistant is a multi-skilled, allied healthcare practitioner who is competent in both a wide variety of clinical and laboratory procedures, as well as many administrative roles. Medical assistants have been described as healthcare’s most versatile, multi-faceted professionals. Medical assisting is an allied health profession whose practitioners function as members of the healthcare delivery team and perform administrative and clinical procedures. MAs are not licensed professionals and they are always required by law to work under the direct supervision of a licensed healthcare provider such as a registered nurse or physician whenever they provide hands-on patient care procedures. Clinical duties vary according to state law and include taking medical histories and recording vital signs, explaining treatment procedures to patients, preparing patients for examination and assisting the physician during the examination.

MAs also perform basic laboratory tests on the premises, instruct patients about medications and special diets, prepare and administer medications as directed by a physician, authorize drug refills as directed, telephone prescriptions to a pharmacy, draw blood, prepare patients for x-rays, take electrocardiograms, remove sutures and change dressings. MAs can assist a wide variety of medical doctors, including specialists. Formal education of medical assistants usually occurs in vocational or technical institutes, community colleges, proprietary schools or junior colleges. The course length usually ranges from one to two-year programs, complete with externships. The curriculum presented must always be accredited if its graduates plan to become either certified or registered.

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