Working with supervising physicians, physician assistants (PAs) provide medical services traditionally performed by physicians. These services include taking medical histories, performing physical examinations, ordering and interpreting tests, diagnosing and treating medical conditions, educating and counseling patients, performing minor medical/surgical procedures, and, in most states prescribing medications. PAs practice in the same settings as physicians, i.e., outpatient facilities, private and public clinics, managed care and other systems in rural and urban areas. PAs are needed from a wide variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds to serve a widely diverse population. The employment outlook for PAs is projected to remain very strong. The Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics places physician assistant in its highest growth category.
There are 187 accredited physician assistant (PA) programs nationwide and 15 developing programs. The average PA program curriculum is 26 months in length. Ninety-one percent of programs grant a master’s degree. The focus of the PA education is primary care medicine. This broad education provides a base from which graduates practice in primary care and other medical specialties. The Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA) provides an online PA Programs Directory. PAEA provides a one-page Physician Assistant Fact Sheet to provide a quick summary of information. The American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) is the national professional society for PAs, represengint a profession of more than 100,000 certified PAs across all medical and surgical specialties. PA Connect is another great resource to learn about the profession; it is an online community for PAs to communicate, learn, share their experiences and discuss changes in the profession.
Choosing a Major
Programs do not generally require a specific major. All PA programs have pre-requisite courses, a few of which are uniform across programs. Some academic majors include many of the prerequisites commonly associated with PA programs; this will allow the student to reduce the number of additional courses that he/she is required to take in order to meet both the requirements of the major and the prerequisites of many PA programs.
Early Planning is Critical to Success
Students planning for a career as a PA should discuss these goals with their pre-professional health and undergraduate major advisers. It is important for students to begin this planning process early for several reasons:
- They may be able to select courses that will meet requirements for both their major and the specific PA programs to which they plan to apply.
- They will need time to meet all the requirements including health care experience (document your hours).
- Admission to PA programs is competitive, hence they should allow themselves time to explore and plan for several career options.
- Each PA program specifies its own requirements and procedures.
The admissions requirement information presented here, should be used only as a guide for students to plan their pre-health curriculum. It is important that they do not interpret these guidelines as definitive statements regarding the admission requirements or policies of individual PA programs.
Prerequisites generally include undergraduate coursework in Anatomy, Physiology, Microbiology, Chemistry (general, organic, and biochemistry) and Psychology. Some PA programs require Genetics, Statistics, and/or Medical Terminology. Required coursework is school-specific. Students are encouraged to consult the Physician Assistant Programs Directory for comparative information on PA programs nationwide.
Academic performance is a critical factor in the evaluation of applicants. Typically programs review the overall Grade Point Average (GPA) and the GPA for science courses. Many programs have a minimum Grade Point Average requirement of 3.0 (GPA). In general, programs may also examine the transcript for evidence of academic consistency, course load and improvement in grade performance.
The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is the most commonly required standardized test, however some programs require the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). You are encouraged to consult with PAEA's Programs Directory for comparative information on required standardized tests for participating PA programs.
Programs generally admit one group of students per year. Most programs’ annual start date for a new cohort is in the fall; others start in summer or in January. The due date for applications is typically 6 – 9 months prior to the start of classes. Some programs require that all prerequisites be met at the time of application; others require prerequisites to be completed by the time of enrollment.
Many programs require or prefer health care experience prior to entry. Each program defines the type and amount of experience it requires. The average amount is about 1000 hours of direct-contact, patient-care experience. Advanced planning is extremely important since it may take some time to acquire the clinical experience.
Letters of Recommendation or Evlauation
PA programs require letters of recommendation as part of the application. We recommend that students establish relationships with faculty within the university as well as with employers in clinical work place settings. Letters of evaluation from people who are able to comment on the applicant’s academic preparation and health care experience are typically preferable to those from personal friends.
The Madison Advising Peers will return to the Pre-Professional Health office to assist students in Fall semester 2016!
The Pre-Physician Assistant Advisor is Professor Jerry Weniger in the Department of Health Sciences. Additional support is provided by advisors in Pre-Professional Health (PPH) Advising. To schedule an appointment with Professor Weniger or an advisor in PPH Advising, calling 540-568-6652, emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or visiting PPH Advising in Roop Hall, G24.