What is a Physician Assistant Degree?

Physician assistants (PAs) are integral to healthcare. Working with a supervising physician, they take medical histories, perform physical exams, update patient charts, order and interpret diagnostic tests, and diagnose and treat patients. In short, as the name implies, they assist physicians.

Physician assistant degree programs include foundational courses in anatomy, physiology, pathophysiology, and pharmacology. Their focus, of course, is on hands-on experience gained through clinical rotations, where medicine comes alive. Students spend time as members of a medical team so they can learn what is involved in each medical specialty. Internal medicine, family medicine, pediatrics, emergency medicine, and surgery are among the core rotations.

Program Options

Master’s Degree in Physician Assistance – Two to Three Year Duration
A master’s degree from a program accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA) is required to work as a physician assistant. Admission requirements may vary somewhat from school to school, but all programs require that students have earned a bachelor’s degree. There is not a specific degree that is required for physician assistant undergraduate study, but a science or healthcare major is both common and preferred. Pre-requisite courses typically include chemistry, anatomy, physiology, biology, statistics, one or more of the social sciences, and medical terminology. In addition, schools generally admit only master’s candidates with a minimum of one year of medical experience. Students who enter PA programs often have worked as a registered nurse, EMT, or paramedic.

Here is an overview of ARC-PA approved master’s programs, which prepare students to write the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE):

• Internal Medicine Clinical Rotation – performing complete history and physical examinations, daily rounds and inpatient monitoring, diagnostic procedures, supervised medical management of patients
• General Surgery Clinical Rotation – practical exposure to patients with common surgical diseases; supervised participation in preoperative, operative, and postoperative phases of surgical patient care
• Primary Care and Family Practice Clinical Rotation – recognizing and managing acute and chronic medical conditions common in primary care and family practice; performing comprehensive histories and physical examinations, diagnostic procedures, and supervised medical and surgical management of patients
• Pediatrics Clinical Rotation – recognizing normal and abnormal findings in the pediatric patient, diagnosing and managing common childhood diseases
• Gynecology and Obstetrics Clinical Rotation – practical exposure to inpatient and outpatient gynecologic and obstetric patients
• Emergency Medicine Clinical Rotation – practical exposure to patients in an urban emergency room setting
• Geriatrics Rotation – practical exposure to elderly patients and the medical conditions common in that segment of the population
• Psychiatry Rotation – practical exposure to psychiatric patients in the inpatient, outpatient, and emergency room settings; recognizing, diagnosing, and treating psychiatric illness
• Research Methods – research principles, concepts, and methodology in the health sciences; ethical considerations in medical research; completion of a clinical review article suitable for journal publication
• Elective Clinical Rotations – opportunities to spend additional time in elective areas of medicine or surgery
• Physician Assistant Seminar – understanding the role of the physician assistant in 21st Century healthcare; professionalism, healthcare law and ethics, using medical literature, cultural considerations in healthcare, health promotion, disease prevention, patient education
• Medical Interviewing – techniques for obtaining an accurate medical history from patients
• Anatomy – anatomy of the chest, upper extremity, abdomen, pelvis, lower extremity, neck, head, and the central nervous system
• Biochemistry – the biomedical principles of carbohydrate, protein, and lipid chemistry presented with nutritional and health problems; vitamins, minerals, the chemistry of respiration, pH balance, blood coagulation, and the hormonal effects on the metabolism of proteins, carbohydrates, and lipids; correlating medical biochemistry with clinical problems such as health maintenance, aging, wound healing, and growth
• Surgical Aspects in Primary Care – clinical problems common in surgical practice; clinical presentation and the correlation between anatomy, pathology, stage of disease, and treatment
• Fundamentals of Primary Care and Clinical Medicine – exploration of the epidemiology, pathogenesis, diagnosis, and treatment of common medical problems; the interrelatedness of bodily systems and medical disciplines; formulating an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan for complex clinical presentations of illness
• Physical Diagnosis – patient examination techniques, comprehensive assessment of patients, medical chart recording, oral presentation of diagnosis
• Physiology – cellular physiology and integrative physiology, normal and vital processes of the human body, characteristics of cellular structure and the cellular mechanisms that promote health, the nervous system, the respiratory system, the endocrine system, the cardiovascular system, the kidneys
• Pharmacology – introduction to therapeutic drugs, practical application and evaluation of drug actions on human organ functions, study of antibiotics
• General Surgery – clinical problems common to general surgery practice, indications and contraindications for surgery, surgical techniques, operating room protocol, asepsis (absence of bacteria) and scrubbing, gowning and gloving, instrumentation, suturing and knot tying
• Gynecology and Obstetrics – introduction to the fundamentals of prenatal care and childbirth, common problems encountered in clinical gynecologic and obstetrical practice, gynecology and obstetrics as a medical specialty
• Epidemiology – the study of disease in populations, frequency and determinants of a disease in a defined population, analysis of published clinical trials, the role of epidemiology in public health policy
• Pathology – the natural history, etiology, pathogenesis, and clinical findings associated with disease states; disorders commonly found in surgical patients
• Surgical Specialties – introduction to specialized surgical practice; introduction to the disciplines of orthopedics, radiology, and anesthesiology
• Pediatrics – fundamentals of growth and development; the medical care of infants, children, and adolescents; immunization, common childhood diseases and their treatments; pediatrics as a medical specialty
• Emergency Medicine – emergency care and life-threatening illness and injury, common complaints seen in the ER; emergency medicine as a medical specialty
• Psychiatry – common behavioral abnormalities and their treatment, professional-patient relationship, reactions to history taking and physical examination, stress and coping mechanisms, detecting and treating psychiatric complications, managing death and dying
• Biostatistics – statistical methods used in healthcare research

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Skills You'll Learn

Attention to Detail
Diagnosing and treating patients demand attention to detail. Patients’ lives are at stake.

Communication
A significant part of the physician assistant role is communicating with and educating patients.

Empathy and Compassion
Working with patients on a daily basis calls for someone who is not only adept at monitoring patients’ physical comfort, but sensitive and responsive to the emotional stress they may be experiencing.

Humility
The physician assistant who knows their limitations is the best physician assistant, because they know when to call in the physician to avoid making a misdiagnosis, risking a patient’s health, and triggering a lawsuit.

Physical Stamina
Physician assistants spend much of their time on their feet.

Stress Management
The medical and health implications of the work can make it stressful.

Teamwork and Collaboration
Physician assistants are part of a team of medical professionals, who share information and work together for the well-being of the patient.

What Can You Do with a Physician Assistant Degree?

More than half of the physician assistants in the United States work in offices of physicians. Others work in hospitals, outpatient care centers, and in educational/teaching positions. Within these roles, PAs may choose to specialize. Common specializations include:

• Internal Medicine
• General Surgery
• Thoracic Surgery
• Family Medicine
• Pediatrics
• Gynecology and Obstetrics
• Emergency Medicine
• Geriatrics
• Psychiatry
• Orthopedics

Depending on their specific responsibilities and their place of employment, physician assistants may hold different titles:

• Physician Assistant
• Clinical Advisor
• Clinical Service Manager
• Emergency Room Physician Assistant
• Medical Practitioner
• Surgical Assistant

It is important to note that in some rural areas, where physicians are in shorter supply, physician assistants may act as primary care providers – as long as a licensed physician is available for consultation, either in person or remotely, as required by federal laws.

Tuition

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