Medical Assistant vs Physician Assistant

On the surface it might seem like there isn't much difference between the role of a Physician Assistant and that of a Medical Assistant, however as we dig a little deeper, you will see that there are some very big differences when we look at the job description of Physician Assistant vs Medical Assistant.

The main areas of difference are:

  1. Responsibilities
  2. Education
  3. Salary
  4. Career Path

Responsibilities

This is the most important difference between these two roles, and it is the higher levels of responsibility which give rise to the higher education requirements and the higher levels of pay that Physician Assistants receive.

Generally speaking, PAs have a much higher level of responsibility as they are not only responsible for patient welfare, but they also perform diagnostic roles - something which an MA never has responsibility for.

Physician Assistant (PA) Medical Assistant (MA)
Administer medicines, injections, and treatments Administer medicines and injections
Consult with doctors and other healthcare professionals Answer directly to doctors
Conduct diagnostic tests and analyze results Help with diagnostic tests where qualified
Operate and monitor medical equipment EG: EKG Operate medical equipment EG: EKG
Record patient medical histories Take basic patient information prior to appointments
Provide prescriptions for medication Give prescribed medications to patients
Diagnose conditions/illnesses/diseases MAs are not allowed to make any independent diagnoses or assessments
Order diagnostic tests
Aid physicians in surgery
Provide referrals to specialists

This is only a basic overview of the differences between the two roles, but as you can see a PA has a much higher level of responsibility than a MA. This video will give you a very good overview of what a PA does:

Education

As you would expect, a significantly higher level of responsibility comes with a much higher level of education. Physician Assistants need to complete a Master's Degree before they can sit for the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE).

This typically means achieving one of the following degrees:

  • Master of Physician Assistant Studies (MPAS)
  • Master of Health Science (MHS)
  • Master of Medical Science (MMSc)
  • Master of Clinical Medical Science (MCMSc)
  • Master of Science in Medicine (MMSc)

Salary

The median salary for a PA is just over $86k per year, or over $41 per hour - that's more than double what an MA can expect. For further details see our report on Medical Assistant Salary.

Career Path - from Medical Assistant to Physician Assistant

As you can probably tell from the information above, very few people go from being a PA to an MA, however there are many Medical Assistants who upgrade their skills and become a PA in order to expand their level of responsibility and get more 'hands on' with patients.

One of the prerequisites of becoming a Physician Assistant is usually having around 3 years of experience before enrolling in a PA program - this is what makes this such a good career advancement opportunity for Medical Assistants as they usually have this experience under their belt before taking the next step.

Summary

It takes many more years of experience and education to become a Physician Assistant as opposed to a Medical Assistant, however a PA is much more highly rewarded in terms of salary - but that also requires a much higher level of investment in education.

If you would like to learn more about Physician Assistants visit the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA).

For a more thorough description on the roles and responsibilities of an MA see: What is a Medical Assistant?

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