All states require that PAs complete an accredited, formal education program and pass a national, standardized exam to obtain a license. PA programs usually last at least 2 years and are full-time. Most programs are in schools of allied health, academic health centers, medical schools, or 4-year colleges; a few are in community colleges, the military, or hospitals. Many accredited PA programs have clinical teaching affiliations with medical schools.
In 2005, more than 135 education programs for Physician Assistants were accredited or provisionally accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission for Physician Assistants (ARC-PA). More than 90 of these programs offered the option of a Master’s degree, and the rest offered either a Bachelor’s degree or an Associate's degree. Most applicants to PA educational programs already have a Bachelor’s degree.
Admission requirements vary, but many programs require 2 years of college and some work experience in the health care field. Students should take courses in biology, English, chemistry, mathematics, psychology, and the social sciences. Many PAs have prior experience as registered nurses, while others come from varied backgrounds, including military corpsman/medics and allied health occupations such as respiratory therapists, physical therapists, and emergency medical technicians and paramedics.
PA education includes classroom instruction in biochemistry, pathology, human anatomy, physiology, microbiology, clinical pharmacology, clinical medicine, geriatric and home health care, disease prevention, and medical ethics. Students obtain supervised clinical training in several areas, including family medicine, internal medicine, surgery, prenatal care and gynecology, geriatrics, emergency medicine, psychiatry, and pediatrics. PA students serve one or more of these “rotations” under the supervision of a physician who is seeking to hire a PA. The rotations often lead to permanent employment.
All states and the District of Columbia have legislation governing the qualifications or practice of Physician Assistants. All jurisdictions require Physician Assistants to pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE), administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) and open only to graduates of accredited PA education programs. Only those successfully completing the examination may use the credential “Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C).” In order to remain certified, PAs must complete 100 hours of continuing medical education every 2 years. Every 6 years, they must pass a recertification examination.
Some PAs pursue additional education in a specialty such as surgery, neonatology, or emergency medicine. PA postgraduate educational programs are available in areas such as internal medicine, rural primary care, emergency medicine, surgery, pediatrics, neonatology, and occupational medicine. Candidates must be graduates of an accredited program and be certified by the NCCPA.
Physician Assistants need leadership skills, self-confidence, and emotional stability. They must be willing to continue studying throughout their career to keep up with medical advances.
As they attain greater clinical knowledge and experience, PAs can advance to added responsibilities and higher earnings. However, by the very nature of the profession, clinically practicing PAs always are supervised by physicians.