Medical Assistant vs Physician Assistant (PA)

There are many differences between medical assistants and physician assistants with only a few similarities.

Some of the similarities include the provision of direct patient care services and the fact that both healthcare providers function under the direction and supervision of licensed healthcare providers like a medical doctor.

Differences between medical assistants and physician assistants are numerous. Physician assistants are licensed by the person’s state of residence and practice and they can also become certified by a national certification body such as the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) and/or the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA).

In contrast, medical assistants are not licensed, but they too can be certified by their national certification body which is the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) (if they elect to do so, which is often the case and the desirable thing to do).

Medical assistants have the education and training to perform simple procedures and tests like taking vital signs and collecting laboratory specimens; physician assistants, on the other hand, are educated and trained to perform complex and challenging procedures and tests such as surgical procedures, cardiac and pulmonary testing and obtaining biopsies, for example, when authorized to do so by their supervising medical doctor.

Differences in Education, Training, & Salary Potential

Length of Education and Training

Becoming a physician’s assistant requires a long length of education and training, including a bachelor’s and master’s degree in the field. Like nursing students, a full time course of study for a bachelor’s degree can take four years. A typical master’s degree in physician assisting can take two years. However, based on the intensity of the required courses and the mandated clinical practicums, most students take more than the estimated time to complete degrees.

Becoming trained as a medical assistant takes significantly less time. In fact, many states don't require any formal education at all. However, prospective medical assistants attending vocational school will likely finish their training in a year. Those attending a college or university could take 2 years or more, depending on their enrollment status (full or part time). Regardless, it takes much less time to become a medical assistant than a physician's assistant.

Specialized Training

Physician's assistant training is quite similar to that of a medical doctor. In fact, some physician assistant students take the same courses that medical doctors take. Briefly stated, their specialized training includes the etiology, risk factors, signs, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of virtually all medical and surgical disorders, diseases and complications.

Medical assistants get medically relevant training, but it is not nearly as specialized or in-depth as the education physician's assistants receive. For example, a medical assistant may understand the same medical terminology of a physician's assistant, but will not know how to diagnose a disease. Instead, the coursework for medical assistants concentrates more on running primary care offices, including taking vital signs, communications, and sample extraction.

Education Prerequisites

Like other professional healthcare career hopefuls, individuals interested in becoming a physician assistant must meet the entry requirements as a matriculated student in a college or university. This typically includes having a certain SAT score among other requirements, after which the enrollee must also meet the entry requirements and complete any prerequisite courses for the physician assistant program.

After graduating with a bachelor's degree the student must then gain entry into a relevant master's degree program. These requirements typically consist of a superior GPA and a minimum score on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), the Miller Analogies Test (MAT), or a similar standardized test.

On the other hand, medical assistants require few prerequisites to enter an educational program aside from a high school diploma or GED, as well as a clean background check. Universities and colleges may have minimum SAT scores and other course requirements for entry into a medical assisting programs. However, becoming a medical assistant does not require the same volume of prerequisites as a physician's assistant.

Differences in Employment Outlook

Salary Potential

Across the U.S. the average salary for a physician assistant during 2012 was $90,930. Medical assistants made significantly less during this same year, averaging around $29,370. However, becoming a physician assistant requires significantly more education and specialization than a medical assistant.

Work Hours and Shifts

The work hours and shifts vary according to the employer and the supervising physician. For example, some physician assistants may work only day hours from Monday to Friday and others may work evenings, nights, weekends and holidays.

This same rule applies to medical assistants. Generally speaking, medical assistants working in primary care offices have predictable hours free of nights and weekends. However, medical assistants employed by hospitals may not have the same luxury.

Physician Assistants Job Growth

The largest expected healthcare employment growth rate, when compared and contrasted to medical assisting, registered nursing, licensed practical nursing and nursing assisting, is that of a physician assistant.

The demand for highly skilled physician assistants is likely to see a 38 to 39 percent growth between 2012 and 2022. This increased demand for physician assistants correlates with the predicted shortages of medical doctors over this same period of time and the projected increase in the number of aging people in our graying America. Despite this need, however, there are no quick and simple options to become a qualified physician assistant.

For similar reasons, medical assistant careers are expected to experience a rapid increase as well. Though the growth rate for medical assistant positions is smaller than physician assistant positions - projected between 29 to 31 percent by 2022 - becoming a medical assistant requires significantly less educational preparation and financial investment than becoming a physician assistant.

Differences in Programs and Costs


The tuition costs to complete physician assistant programs vary according to the college and university and the level of education an applicant wants to pursue. For example, some applicants may want an associate degree, while others may want to complete a bachelor's degree.

The national average tuition cost for students in a public college with in-state residency is about $4000 per year; the average for out-of-state students is about $8,000 per year. Room, board, books and other fees add to these costs. The tuition for private colleges and universities tends to be higher, averaging about $15,000 per year.

An associate degree in a public college with residency in the state, therefore, totals about $8,000 and a student without established residency in the state will pay about $16,000 for the same degree. Likewise, a bachelor's degree in a public college with residency in the state totals about $16,000 and a student without established residency in the state will pay about $32,000 for the same degree.

Medical assistants pay significantly less for their education and training. Completing a vocational school program averages around $4,000. However, costs can be higher when the medical assistant student decides to attend a college or university, which is subject to the same variations that physician assistant students will experience.

Online vs on Campus Programs

Like nursing programs, approved and accredited physician assistant programs for initial licensure have clinical experiences that must be done live and with an instructor in the clinical area. Some post-licensure programs may be offered online or as a combination of online and on campus coursework.

Though medical assisting programs may offer some online coursework, the majority of the work takes place in-person or on campus. Vocational schools do not offer online options at all. When a medical assisting student attends a college or university they may opt to take online classes for their general education credits.


Generally speaking, physician assistant studies are highly rigorous and competitive not only in terms of admission, but also in terms of attaining certain grades to remain in the program and graduate.

Medical assistant programs are not nearly as competitive. Though low-tuition schools in urban areas may experience larger influxes of applicants due to easy accessibility, the level of rigor is not to the same level as those found in physician assistant programs.

Other Requirements and Prerequisites

The prerequisites and requirements of physician assisting programs are also more rigorous than other healthcare education programs. However, these requirements do vary according to the level of education one is seeking and the school that one chooses to attend. Of all the previously mentioned medical careers with the exception of registered nursing, physician assistants (PA) require the most education and training. The American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) accredits and approves educational and training programs for physician assistants that can range from two years of college or university education to a master's degree as discussed above as stated by the US Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Though medical assistants do not have the same level of requirements, it is often in the student's best interest to find a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). These programs will allow them to qualify for invaluable certification exams in the future, making them more appealing to future employers.