What Is the Difference Between a Medical Assistant and a Physician Assistant?

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Long before you begin applying to one of the top physician assistant degree programs, you should know whether you want to be a medical assistant or a physician assistant. These job titles may sound so similar that you would think they should be interchangeable, but in fact, the job duties they involve and the education and training needed to get them are drastically different.

DegreeQuery.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

The Focus of the Career Path

Both medical assistants and physician assistants play an important role in the day-to-day operations of a medical facility. However, there’s not as much overlap as you may think when it comes to what these workers actually do in their respective roles. Medical assistants perform support roles in a medical facility. Some of these job duties are more administrative in nature, such as scheduling appointments, fielding phone calls and managing paperwork. Other tasks have a clinical component, such as measuring a patient’s vital signs and performing or preparing patients for simple laboratory tests.

Some medical assistants split their time between administrative and clinical tasks, but others specialize in one of these functions, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported. By keeping both clinical and administrative functions running smoothly, medical assistants support doctors and allow them to function at their best. However, a patient wouldn’t see a medical assistant as their primary point-of-care provider.

On the other hand, physician assistants actually do practice medicine. They aren’t “assistants” in the administrative support way that medical assistants are. However, they can only practice medicine under the supervision of a doctor, so collaboration with a physician is a crucial part of their job.

In instances in which a PA is, in fact, assisting a doctor with a complicated medical procedure or surgery, the PA may perform more complex clinical tasks than a medical assistant would. For example, if a patient is undergoing a surgery, the doctor would be the one performing the medical interventions to address the patient’s problem. A medical assistant may check the patient’s blood pressure and check other vital signs while preparing them for the operation. A physician assistant might be responsible for stitching closed the incision wounds, the BLS reported.

Both medical assistants and PAs can tailor their career to a medical specialty by working in a certain type of medical practice facility. PAs have the career flexibility to change their clinical specialty for better earning potential or work-life balance, to the American Academy of PAs reported.  

Qualifications Needed for the Profession

Both medical assistants and physician assistants typically require education beyond a high school diploma, but the education and training requirements are a lot more rigorous for physician assistants. You can train to become a medical assistant in as little as one year through a certificate program at a vocational school, a technical school or a community college. Nearly two-thirds of medical assistants have some sort of post-secondary certificate, while 18 percent have an associate’s degree, according to O*NET. Medical assistants don’t need a license but may choose to acquire voluntary certification, according to the BLS.

Becoming a PA takes a lot longer than becoming a medical assistant, something that shouldn’t be a surprise, given the much greater scope of clinical job duties involved in this career path. At a minimum, physician assistants typically spend six years on their education after high school, although some colleges offer accelerated format PA programs that can cut this time down to five years. To become a physician assistant, you usually need a bachelor’s degree in pre-PA studies or in the sciences and then a master’s degree in physician assistant studies. These programs are challenging and include science-heavy coursework and a great deal of clinical experience.

RELATED: How Long Does It Take to Become a Doctor?

In terms of advancement, medical assistants can go back to school to become a PA or a nurse. PAs generally don’t “advance” to become doctors but instead move into leadership roles and more complex clinical roles through specialty certification or a professional doctorate degree.

Differences in Earning Potential and Job Outlook

There’s a world of difference in earning capacity between these two jobs with such similar titles. Despite the prevalence of an education beyond high school in this field, medical assistants in 2019 earned a median wage below that of all occupations, $34,800, the BLS reported. Physician assistants, on the other hand, make hefty six-figure salaries. The median salary for PAs in $112,260 per year, according to the BLS.

A PA’s salary is still lower than the median wage for doctors, which is equal to or greater than $208,000 annually and varies by medical specialty, according to the BLS. However, PAs also become fully qualified for their careers a lot faster than doctors and take on a lot less student debt to get started in the career.

For medical assistants and physician assistants, the job outlook is bright. Both of these occupations are undergoing much faster than average rates of job growth, even within the healthcare industry. While the projected job growth rate across all occupations is just 5 percent, the BLS anticipates jobs in the healthcare sector to grow by a more favorable 14 percent. Physician assistants are looking forward to a 31 percent rate of job growth over a decade, more than double even that high growth rate expected for all healthcare jobs. Medical assistants are also enjoying rapid job growth, with a 23 percent rate of job increases.

For PAs, starting salaries in the range of $87,000 and above are common, and students graduating from highly respected physician assistant schools may see starting salaries as high as $96,000 or more.

Additional Resources

Why Would Someone Become a PA Instead of an MD?

What Exactly Is a PA?

Where Does Someone Look to Get a Job As a PA?