Medical Assistant vs. Physician Assistant

Healthcare staffing has come a long way. Whereas once doctors and nurses were the mainstay of healthcare practice, medical assisting and physician assisting are now thriving careers. Medical assistants are allied health professionals responsible for a wide range of clinical and administrative duties. Physician Assistants, however, are clinical practitioners who play a much different role than medical assistants in the medical office.

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Medical assistants and physician’s assistants both perform job duties vital to keeping a physician’s office running smooth and efficiently. Both careers involve working under the supervision of a physician. That however is where the similarities stop and the differences between these two careers begin. Although both careers contain “assistant” in their title, these two jobs are very different. Medical assistants (MA) are often responsible for both clinical and administrative job duties. Physician assistants (PA) are primarily responsible for patient care. In order to decide which career path is best suited, an individual must first understand the differences between the two.

Medical Assistant Education

Medical assistants (MAs) help keep things running smoothly in a clinical setting. MAs often receive post-secondary education in the field of medical assisting, though some are trained on the job. Medical assistant education includes two-year college programs, or a one year diploma, or nine-month certificate programs. Once an MA program is successfully completed, a medical assistant may become certified through the American Association of Medical Assistants, and earn the CMA (certified medical assistant) credential. CMAs must recertify their CMA credentials every five years.

Medical Assistant Responsibilities

Medical assistants work closely with nurses to provide patient care. In some instances, a medical assistant may perform the same duties as a clinic nurse. Medical assistant responsibilities consist of both administrative and clinical skills:

  • Taking patient health histories and vital signs
  • Administering medications, injections and immunizations
  • Assisting with medical procedures, like minor surgery, casting and splinting and sutures
  • Answering phones and making appointments
  • Handling and filing medical records
  • Using medical computer programs

Some medical assistants also perform laboratory skills, like drawing blood and running basic lab tests. Minor radiology may also be performed by some medical assistants.

Medical Assistant Salary

Salaries earned by medical assistants are typically based on their job duties and responsibilities. On average a medical assistant earns around $34,000 per year. Those who have completed a formal training program and have become licensed earn higher wages than those who go through on-the-job training through their employer. Medical assistants who go through the training required to specialize in areas such as optometry, ophthalmology or podiatry often earn salaries at the higher end of the pay scale range.

Common Employment

Because medical assistants are so versatile, they are usually hired in medical clinics and perform multiple roles. Some hospitals employ certified medical assistants to work as patient care technicians or dialysis technicians. Other medical offices may also utilize MAs, like eye doctors, pain clinics, outpatient surgery centers and dental offices.

Physician Assistant Education

Physician assistants (PA) are medical practitioners. Because they diagnose and treat medical conditions, the education a PA receives is extensive. Physician assistants usually hold a Master’s degree, while some training programs offer a Bachelor’s degree in Physician Assisting.

PA education includes an in-depth combination of classroom and clinical instruction. Students study human anatomy and physiology, biochemistry, medical pathology, clinical medicine, physical diagnosis and clinical pharmacology. PA students also complete several clinical rotations for hands-on practice in diagnosing and treating patients, performing surgical skills and learning clinical specialty.

After graduation from a PA education program, students must take and pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination, administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). This earns the PA-C, or Physician Assistant Certified, credential. PAs are required to recertify every six years.

Physician Assistant Responsibilities

Even though physician assistants have a license, they still work under the direction of a licensed medical doctor. The physician may determine what skills the PA may perform; however, physician assistants usually perform a variety of medical skills:

  • Diagnosing illness and injury
  • Treating illness and injury
  • Performing minor surgery, like sutures.
  • Prescribing medications
  • Handling medical emergencies
  • Administering medication
  • Performing physical examinations, including gynecological and obstetric exams
  • Supervising staff

Physician assistants are able to specialize and work in many different areas of medicine. Because of this, the duties they perform will vary based on the specialty. Some PAs work in emergency medicine (ER), family practice or urgent care, where they treat a little bit of everything and use a variety of skills.

Physician Assistant Salary

A physician’s assistant earns on average almost $100,000 per year. The salary earned by a physician’s assistant may be based upon work setting, the number of patients seen and the responsibilities of the PA. Typically PA employed to work in hospitals and outpatient care centers earn the highest wages. A physician’s assistant working for a specialized practice often earns a higher salary as well. Those working in education have lower earnings than those hired to work directly with patients.

Common Employment

Like medical assistants, physician assistants are extremely versatile and useful in the healthcare system. This allows them to work just about anywhere. In rural areas, PAs may staff rural clinics or work in public health. PAs commonly work in medical clinics or specialty clinics alongside a physician. They may be required to do rotations in the emergency department as well as work in a clinic setting. In the clinic, PAs may establish a patient following and see patients for routine healthcare and treatment. PAs are also in demand in specialty areas, like internal medicine and cardiology. Some PAs work in surgery centers, pain clinics or sports clinics, as well.

Search Medical Assistant Programs

Get information on Medical Assistant programs by entering your zip code and request enrollment information.

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Article Written by Elizabeth Otto

Elizabeth Otto is a freelance writer specializing in medical and health articles. Otto has worked as a certified medical assistant in specialty practice since 1994 and is also a nationally registered emergency medical technician.

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