Medical Assistant vs. Physician Assistant: What’s the Difference?

If you are considering a career in the booming healthcare field, you’ve likely researched an array of different medical professions, trying to find the one that’s right for you. But there are over 100 recognized positions within the healthcare industry, and after a while, they can all start to sound the same. Hence, the Medical Assistant vs. Physician Assistant debate.

Their job titles may sound the same, but the careers of a Physician Assistant (PA) and Medical Assistant (MA) could not be more different. Medical Assistants and Physician Assistants have different job duties, different skillsets, different licensing and educational requirements, and even separate salary potentials. The two career paths also vastly vary in the amount of time it takes to earn each degree.

The confusion between a Physician Assistant and Medical Assistant often stems from the fact that they both have the word “assistant” in their job title. Some people may get confused at the fact that Medical Assistants often work in physician’s offices. In this article, Goodwin University will shed some light on these popular healthcare careers, and clarify the differences between the two.

Physician Assistant

Job Description: A Physician Assistant is a medical practitioner that, under the direction of doctors, are certified to diagnose and treat patients. Like physicians, PAs actively practice medicine and patient care – examining patient conditions and medical histories, ordering and interpreting diagnostic tests, diagnosing injury and illness, providing treatment, and prescribing medication – only they do so under the supervision of a licensed physician. Physician Assistants work on teams with physicians, surgeons, and other healthcare workers. Their duties and their level of required supervision will vary state to state.

Skills: Physician Assistants require a robust skillset, consisting of interpersonal and clinical skills. Among the many skills that employers are looking for in Pas today, are:

  • Quality patient care
  • Surgery
  • Primary care
  • Therapeutic procedures
  • Problem-solving
  • Emotional stability, as well as compassion for patients
  • Effective communication with patients and their families, as well as team members
  • Collaboration and ability to work on a team

Required Education: Here’s the stand-out difference between a Medical Assistant and Physician Assistant: the level of education (and commitment) required to land a career. To become a PA today, you must hold at least a bachelor’s degree, though most PA programs are offered at the master’s level. Master’s degree programs usually mean two years of full-time postgraduate study, after completing a bachelor’s program. PA programs often require students to have undergraduate coursework with a focus in science, as well as some previous patient care work experience (as an RN or EMT, for example).

Licensing Requirements: All states require Physician Assistants to be licensed. To become licensed, the BLS states that candidates must pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination from the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). Successful completion of this exam will grant PAs the credential Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C).

Career Outlook: Nationwide, employment of Physician Assistants is expected to grow 37 percent from 2016 to 2026. Like many healthcare careers, this is much faster than the average for all occupations. In addition to a bright job outlook, PAs can usually look forward to a gratifying annual salary of over $100k.

Medical Assistant

Job Description: Medical assisting is more of an entry to mid-level career choice for those looking to break into the healthcare field. However, this path is equally rewarding. Medical Assistants have a unique, versatile role on the healthcare team, taking on both administrative and clinical tasks as part of their day-to-day job. On the clinical side, MAs may record patients’ personal information and medical histories, prepare exam rooms, measure patient vital signs, give patients injections or medications as directed by a physician, and prepare blood samples for laboratory testing. They may also assist physicians with patient examinations. On the administrative side, Medical Assistants can be found scheduling patient appointments, filing patient records, and helping with billing and insurance claims.

Skills: Because of their multi-faceted job description, Medical Assistants must have a range of different skills to be successful at their job. The skills most in-demand among MAs today include:

  • Quality, compassionate patient care
  • Ability to properly measure and record vital signs, such as blood pressure
  • Scheduling, appointment setting, and general organizational skills
  • Technical skills to work and understand EHR software (electronic health records)
  • Practical skills working with basic medical instruments
  • Communication and interpersonal skills
  • Well-versed in medical terminology
  • Phlebotomy skills and injections
  • Electrocardiogram (EKG) if applicable

Required Education: There are no formal educational requirements for Medical Assistants, though most employers require postsecondary training and education. And typically, Medical Assistants will choose to pursue a certificate-level program or an associate degree in Medical Assisting, due to the comprehensive curriculums and training received. Medical Assistant programs normally take 1-2 years to finish. At Goodwin College, however, you can complete your MA training in 25% less time than other Connecticut schools. And unlike other schools, you will earn real college credits and hands-on, clinical experience in our medical assisting programs. This can help you stand out to prospective employers.

Licensing Requirements: Medical Assistants are not required to be licensed in every state. Connecticut, for example, does not have any official Medical Assistant licensing requirements at this time. However, MAs are expected to receive and maintain certification, and those who do are generally preferred by healthcare employers. That is why both programs at Goodwin College are designed to prepare students for the Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) examination as well as the Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) examination, which will grant them national licensure as Certified Medical Assistants.

Career Outlook: Employment of Medical Assistants is projected to grow 29 percent nationwide, by 2026 – again, much faster than the average for all occupations. Aspiring MAs can look forward to constant job security, getting into such a highly-demanded field. In the U.S., the average annual MA salary is $32,480.

The difference between Medical Assistants vs. Physician Assistants is pretty clear, once you break it down. The real question lies in deciding which career path is right for you. Do you desire an advanced medical position treating and diagnosing patients? Or, do you desire to get into the healthcare field fast, by pursuing a supportive role as a Medical Assistant? Are you able to commit to years of schooling to acquire all the PA prerequisites, or does a flexible Medical Assisting college better meet your needs? These are questions only you can answer. Both healthcare careers are rewarding, in-demand, and highly desired. Which will you choose?

Goodwin College is a leader in healthcare education in Connecticut. To learn more about Goodwin University’s fast-track medical assisting programs, visit us online or call 800-899-3282 today.