BY KATIE LUQUIRE –
At this point, you probably know the ins and outs of medical school. You have shadowed a few doctors, spent countless hours studying for the MCAT and somehow made it through Organic Chemistry. Twice. But what if there’s an alternative to earning an MD?
In 2010, the Affordable Care Act named three primary care providers: physicians, physician’s assistants and nurse practitioners. So, what is a physician’s assistant, and what exactly do they do?
Like physicians, physician’s assistants (PAs), commonly work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, private practices and health maintenance organizations. PAs work on teams with physicians, surgeons and other healthcare workers, and the extent to which they must be supervised varies from state to state. The majority of PAs work independently of the doctor and only collaborate with the physician when a complicated case arises. In fact, PAs are responsible for many of the duties that doctors also share, including taking medical histories, examining patients, diagnosing patients, giving treatment such as setting broken bones and giving immunizations and even prescribing medicine.
One of the most appealing aspects to a PA career is the flexibility. Because the training of PA school is largely holistic, PAs have the freedom to change clinical specialties over their careers. It is not uncommon for PAs to switch their focus every few years, and according to annual surveys by the American Academy of Physician’s Assistants, 49% of all clinically active PAs changed specialties at some point in their careers.
Additionally, the training for PAs is similar to that of medical school. Half of the curriculum in PA school is spent on rigorous sciences and clinical medicine, while the other half is designated to clinical rotations. However, while medical school is a four year program, PA school usually averages around 26 months. PAs also are not required to have an internship or a residency; however, many schools require their students to have hundreds of hours of healthcare experience upon matriculation.
While many PA students do take a gap year between receiving their undergraduate degrees and entering secondary school in order to gain these patient care hours, they are able to graduate in just two years, producing a much faster route to the medical field and a more direct route to caring for patients. Less time in school also means accumulating less debt. While the average cost of medical school in 2017 was $186,520 for four years, PA school costs an average of $71,369.
The rise of PA and similar professions will be key in the upcoming years. With the aging baby boomer population and the Affordable Care Act, there will be a greater need for healthcare professionals. In fact, the PA profession is projected to grow by 30% from 2014 to 2024 and has been named by both Forbes and USA Today as the most promising job in America.
While it may seem like there is only one track to the medical field, there are other routes to serving patients. While medical school is right for some students, being a PA is a great career for those who want to pursue a career in medicine but do not want to devote extended years (or savings) to a medical career.
There are some great resources offered by UGA for learning more about the career of a PA. The Pre-PA Association is a wonderful resource, and their website includes meeting minutes that contain more information on a PA’s role in medicine. Additionally, the Pre-Health office has great resources for students who are interested in careers in medicine. One of the best ways to determine which of these diverse medical careers is best for you is through shadowing. Take a few days this summer to shadow in areas that appeal to you in order to really see which career or specialty aligns best with your interests. You might just find that a career as a PA is right for you.