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Physician Assistant vs. Medical Assistant: How are they Different?

two boxing gloves with physician and medical assistant icons 

There are over 100 recognized positions within the healthcare industry, so it stands to reason that some of them start to sound the same.

When it comes to physician assistant versus medical assistant, both titles have “assistant” in the name. So does that mean they are medical secretaries? Do they run and get coffee for the doctor? Do they routinely draft memos on behalf of the doctor? With what exactly do they assist?

We pulled together information from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and scrubbed job postings from the last 12 months using real-time market intelligence from* Our results will provide answers to your questions and show how they really are very different career paths.

Physician assistant vs. medical assistant: Education & certification

These two positions vary greatly in the amount of education it takes to be qualified for the job. This is one of the first things that you should think about when you are looking at these two careers.

What sort of time do you have to commit to an academic program? Do you want to train for an advanced career or find a program that get your career going sooner?

Physician assistant (PA)

PA positions require at least a master’s degree, according to the BLS. All states require a degree from a school with an accredited PA program followed by licensure.

In other words, PA education can take up to six years including a 4-year bachelor’s degree and a 2-year postgraduate degree. Licensure is obtained from an exam through the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) and requires 100 hours of continuing education every two years to stay active.

Medical assistant (MA)

MA positions require significantly less training. Most states do not have formal education requirements but employers prefer to hire assistants who have completed an accredited training program, according to the BLS.

MA programs usually take 1-2 years for a diploma or associate degree. Afterwards graduates are qualified to take a certification exam administered by one of five recognized accrediting bodies.

Physician assistant vs. medical assistant: Job duties

The education requirements to become a physician assistant or a medical assistant vary immensely, so it stands to reason that duties performed in each position are also diametrically different.

Physician assistant (PA)

PAs provide a range of physician-level medical services under the supervision of a doctor. This often includes examinations and treatment plans, and in many cases even qualifies them to interpret diagnostic tests and prescribe medication, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In fact, PAs are increasingly being utilized to fill gaps in medical coverage in rural or inner city locations where there is a shortage of qualified physicians.

Medical assistants (MA)

MAs have a combination of clinical and administrative duties that support a physician’s work. Much of their work comprises prepping the patients to see the doctor and can include duties like recording a patient’s medical history, taking vital signs and collecting laboratory specimens.

Physician assistant vs. medical assistant: Skills

As you’ve probably guessed by know, it takes a very different skill set to perform the job duties of these two professions. We dug into job postings over the last year and identified the top skills that employers are looking:

Physician assistants (PA)

  • Patient care
  • Treatment planning
  • Surgery
  • Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS)
  • Patient/family education and instruction
  • Collaboration
  • Primary care
  • Therapeutic procedures
  • Patient direction
  • X-rays

Medical assistants (MA)

  • Patient care
  • Vital signs measurement
  • Scheduling
  • Appointment setting
  • Patient preparation
  • Injections
  • Phlebotomy
  • Electrocardiogram (EKG)
  • Medical terminology
  • Electronic medical records

Like all direct medical roles, patient care is critical to both fields. But the remainder of the skills needed to perform these roles tie closely to their respective responsibilities. PA skills focus on treatment proficiencies such as primary care and even surgery. MA skills, on the other hand, play more supportive roles like recording vital signs, appointment scheduling and preparing patients for procedures.

Physician assistant vs. medical assistant: Career outlook

While there have been a lot of differences thus far, a positive job outlook is one area in which these two careers are very similar. Fueled by President Obama’s healthcare reform law and an aging baby boomer population, the healthcare industry as a whole is on track to create upwards of 5.6 million new jobs by 2020, according to a new study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and Workforce.

Physician assistant (PA)

PAs earn a median annual salary of $90,930**. The BLS projects a 38 percent growth through 2022, which is significantly above the average growth (11 percent) projected for all occupations. Some of this growth can be attributed to the booming medical industry but a large chunk of it also comes from the need for coverage of the physician shortage.

Medical assistant (PA)

MAs earn a median annual salary of $29,370**. The BLS anticipates 29 percent growth for this profession, which is also significantly above average. Some of this can be attributed to physicians relying heavier on medical assistants’ understanding of patient’s electronic health records (EHRs).

Physician assistant vs. medical assistant: How to decide

As you can see, while both roles are very important to receiving the best possible medical care, these two careers are very different. Both offer bright outlooks for the future but in the end, you have to pick one that aligns with your academic plans and perceived role in the healthcare community.

If you are interested in learning more about joining the medical assisting community, check out some facts about the program at Rasmussen College’s School of Health Sciences. For more information about what medical assistants do in each of the career settings, see this article profiling the work of real MAs in the field.

* (Analysis of 58,797 physician assistant postings and 82,186 medical assistant job postings, Apr. 1, 2013 - Mar. 31, 2014)
**Salary data represents national, averaged earnings for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries and employment conditions in your area may vary.

Katy Katz

Katy is a Content Marketing Specialist at Collegis Education who writes student-focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen College. She enjoys creating engaging content to help former, current and future students on their path to a rewarding education.


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