Alternative Paths

Physician vs. Physician Assistant (PA) Comparison

A Side-by-Side Look at Salary, Training, and Job Duties

Whether you pursue a career as a physician or physician assistant, one thing for sure is that you’ll be contributing to the dire healthcare shortage our country will soon be facing. 

What is a Physician Assistant/Associate (PA)?

According to the AAPA (American Academy of Physician Associates), physician assistants are “licensed clinicians who practice medicine in every specialty and setting. Trusted, rigorously educated and trained healthcare professionals, PAs are dedicated to expanding access to care and transforming health and wellness through patient-centered, team-based medical practice.” 

How Long Does it Take to Become a PA?

Physician assistants must have graduated from an accredited university/college with a bachelor’s degree; most bachelor’s degree programs last 4 years. After the completion of a bachelor’s degree, students will enter a physician assistant program which will take approximately two years to complete.

What’s the Scope of Practice of a PA?

According to the AAPA, physician assistants can take a medical history, conduct physical exams and diagnose and treat illnesses. For a more in-depth review of a physician assistant’s scope of practice, pre-med students should read the following overview on the scope of practice of a physician assistant from the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Sciences.

What’s the Difference Between a PA and a Physician?

A common misconception about physician assistants is that they work under the supervision of practicing physicians. Physician assistants actually work independently within a set scope of practice. The dynamic between a physician assistant and a physician is more one of collaboration rather than supervision.

In terms of everyday practice, while PAs and physicians may have similar practice areas, physicians are ultimately the decision maker in many cases. They also tend to deal with significantly more complex patients (although physicians also take care of general, less complex medical issues on a daily basis!). 

Salary Differences Between Physicians and Physician Assistants

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for physician assistants in 2021 was $121,530 per year. The median salary for physicians in 2021 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics was greater than $208,000. That’s nearly a $100,000 difference between the two professions. The average salary for a specialist physician, such as a plastic surgeon, can be considerably higher.

READ –> Medical Speciality Spotlight for more information on physician salaries and specialties

Advantages of Becoming a Physician Assistant

One key advantage of a physician assistant is the flexibility it offers. Physician assistants can switch from specialty to specialty fairly easily. This allows PAs to explore an array of medical specialties and constantly stay intrigued. As far as physicians, it’s fairly difficult to switch from a specialty once you’ve chosen it. Another key advantage of becoming a physician assistant is the work-life balance it offers. As a physician assistant, you will work fewer hours than attending physicians. Pre-med students should check out the following blog for an in-depth review of the work-life balance of different specialties as a PA.

Advantages of Becoming a Physician

As mentioned earlier in the blog, physicians go through more rigorous schooling and training. While this may seem like a disadvantage at first, it becomes a major advantage once the physician is out practicing. Physicians are at the head of a healthcare team and are essentially “calling the shots”. They have the final say in a patient’s treatment. The physician is equipped with the most knowledge in a healthcare team, and it’s the physician who other healthcare members look to for guidance and answers. 

While this can be an advantage for many students, this may also come off as a disadvantage to some pre-med students. If that’s the case, then a career as a physician assistant might be better suited for you.

Which Should I Pursue?

Both careers are amazing choices to serve others and make an impactful difference in someone’s life. It ultimately comes down to what you desire from your career. If you’re someone who knows they want routine and when you leave work for the day, you’re not contacted until you come back in, then a PA might be your best bet. If you’re someone who likes to make the final decision and has a deep passion for understanding pathology on a molecular level then a career as a physician is better suited for you.

Pre-med students should shadow both physician assistants and physicians and ask questions to fully understand the ins and outs of both professions’ careers. In doing so, pre-med students can make an informed decision about which profession to pursue.

Yaseen Elhag

My name is Yaseen Elhag. I hold a bachelor's in Health Science and I have aspirations of becoming a physician. I have a deep passion for eliminating healthcare disparities. Some of my hobbies include Mixed Martial Arts, traveling, and playing chess!

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