Even though both careers may sound similar, there is actually quite a difference between a career as a physician's assistant and as a medical assistant. Take all the factors into consideration before deciding on a program that is right for you.

Physician's assistant versus medical assistant: Yes, there is a difference

Article Sources


"Medical Assistants," Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2013, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes319092.htm

"Medical Assistants," Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, January 8, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/medical-assistants.htm

"Physician Assistants," Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2013, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes291071.htm

"Physician Assistants," Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, January 8, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physician-assistants.htm


Physician assistant. Medical assistant. They sound pretty similar based purely on the job titles. However, the responsibilities of these two positions are actually quite different. Learning more about both careers may help you determine which option your interests and skill set are best suited for.

Job description

Medical assistants may complete both administrative and clinical tasks. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov), administrative tasks may consist of recording a patient's medical history, helping patients schedule appointments or organizing and maintaining the electronic health records for a doctor's practice. Clinical tasks may include helping doctors perform physical exams, giving injections or preparing blood for laboratory testing.

Physician's assistants (PAs), on the other hand, may take a more direct role in the clinical side of patient care. The BLS states that PAs may order tests, make diagnoses, give treatment and prescribe medication. Physician's assistants are not doctors and work under the supervision of a physician or surgeon. However, depending on state regulations, the degree of supervision required may vary significantly.

Education required

While some medical assistants find employment with a high school diploma and on-the-job training, some employers prefer applicants with a certificate in medical assisting or even an associate degree. Shorter programs offering certificates and associate degrees may make it possible to gain the necessary skills and experience relatively quickly. This could make medical assisting an attractive profession for individuals who want to complete school and begin their career as soon as possible.

Physician's assistants, on the other hand, are typically required to have a master's degree as well as the appropriate license. Master's degrees may be completed in at least two years of full-time study. In addition, a bachelor's degree in biology or other related area is generally required for admission into a master's program for a total of at least six years of post-secondary education. This career path may be of interest to individuals who would like to take a more hands-on role in patient care. However, it may take several years of education and training before you are ready and qualified to begin your career.

Projected career opportunities and pay

The BLS projects that employment of medical assistants will grow 29 percent from 2012 to 2022. This is much faster than the average for all occupations. This growth is expected to stem from trends such as the move from paper to electronic health records. The increase in individuals with access to health insurance as a result of the Affordable Care Act is also expected to place increased demand on primary care physicians, where the majority of job growth for medical assistant positions is anticipated. While the national median annual wage for medical assistants was $29,610, BLS research indicates that the top 10 percent earned at least than $41,910 in May 2013, while the bottom 10 percent earned up to $21,280.

Employment of physician's assistants is also expected to grow much faster than the average of all occupations. In fact, the BLS projects that employment of physician assistants is projected to grow 38 percent from 2012 to 2022. This is because the passage of the Affordable Care Act has exacerbated an already existing shortage in primary care physicians. Physician's assistants can provide many of the same services as doctors but can be more cost-effective. The national median annual wage for physician assistants was $92,970 in May 2013, while the top 10 percent earned at least $130,620, and the bottom 10 percent earned up to $62,030.

Fit and work environment

The BLS indicates that over half of medical assistants are employed in physician's offices and other health care facilities. While most medical assistants work full-time, those who work in an office setting may work mainly during normal business hours. And because most physician's offices do not deal with emergent situations, medical assistants may have the opportunity to develop relationships with patients in a more relaxed atmosphere. People who are interested in this type of personal connection may find work as a medical assistant appealing.

On the other hand, many physician assistants may work nights, weekends, or holidays or be "on call," meaning they could expect to be called into work at a moment's notice. In addition, depending on a physician assistant's specialty, they may spend a significant amount of time on their feet. The circumstances under which physician assistants interact with patients may also be more stressful. While some individuals thrive in that sort of work environment, it is not for everyone.

Which is right for you?

As with so many questions, the best person to decide which career option is best for you, is you. Considerations such as work environment and amount of education required may be factors just as as important as salary. Once you have decided what career is right for you, you should be able to pursue the appropriate program at a health care vocational school.

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