What happens after you graduate from one of the top physician assistant degree programs? To put your education into action, you need to acquire a state license. The license that allows PAs to practice medicine within their scope of work is a different license than doctors need to practice medicine independently. However, these licenses are often – though not always – granted by the same regulatory bodies that license physicians, often holding titles such as “Board of Medicine,” “Board of Medical Examiners” or “Department of Health.” There are some differences between the medical license awarded to doctors and the license that permits professional practice for physician assistants, including the time it takes to get licensed and the job duties you can perform.

A Physician Assistant License, Not a Medical License

One of the biggest differences between getting your medical license as a doctor and getting licensed as a physician assistant is the time it takes to be eligible for licensure. An aspiring PA can complete an accredited master’s degree program in physician assistant studies in as little as two years – although some programs take three years – and immediately be eligible to pursue certification. In fact, students can submit their application for certification as early as 90 days before they finish their studies and take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) a week after they finish school, according to the Massachusetts Medical Society.

For doctors, becoming eligible for licensure takes a lot longer. For one thing, aspiring physicians have to spend four years in medical school, compared to the two or three years expected of PAs. They must also complete the internship year of their residency training before they can apply for licensure and begin the process of passing their licensing exams.

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Overall, you’re looking at a minimum of five years of study and training beyond your undergraduate studies to be eligible to take a licensing exam as a physician, but you could start the licensure process within two years as a PA. Although three years may not be such a huge discrepancy in the grand scheme of things, the opportunity to more quickly get into your healthcare career as a fully qualified practitioner – and start earning money – is one of the benefits of the PA occupation.

Some of the states that have separate regulatory bodies specifically for PAs include California, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Utah, according to the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA).

What a PA’s License Qualifies You to Do

Physician assistants are only licensed to practice under the supervision of a doctor, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported. Becoming licensed doesn’t allow you to perform work independently, without the oversight or approval of a physician. In this role, you will always at least collaborate with a licensed medical doctor. Essentially, the supervising physician is delegating tasks to you – tasks that can be as large and fluid as serving as a patient’s primary care provider or as small and specific as stitching closed a surgical incision during an operation.

The collaboration between PAs and their supervising doctors can look vastly different depending on the state in which you work, your employer’s policies and your own level of professional experience. Experienced physician assistants in states with the most lenient rules may only have regularly scheduled phone consultations with their supervising doctors as infrequently as once a month. New PAs in states with stricter regulations have far less autonomy. They may require direct on-site supervision until they gain sufficient experience working in clinical practice, and they may need their supervising physician to review and co-sign or countersign every patient chart they handle throughout their career.

Because they must work under a doctor’s supervision, PAs face an additional licensure requirement that physicians don’t have: the need to have a written agreement with a supervising physician. Different state regulations and employer policies may influence what this agreement entails, as well as what a PA is allowed to do. Generally, this agreement should outline the physician assistant’s responsibilities and scope of practice, including their job duties and the medical performances they’re allowed to perform, according to the Pennsylvania Society of Physician Assistants.

In addition to a state license, PAs can seek certification as a Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C). Some states require PA-C certification for licensure, but others do not, the American Academy of PAs reported. Specialty certification is also available for PAs.

Additional Resources

Do PAs Have to Take the Same Boards as an MD?

Do PAs Go to Medical School?

What Kind of Supervision Does a PA Need to Be Able to Practice?