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


These two in-demand health care professions sound an awful lot alike, but they actually share very little in common when it comes to day-to-day tasks, education requirements and salary.

Medical assistants handle a wide variety of entry-level administrative and clinical tasks, whereas physician assistants are licensed health care providers diagnose and treat patients under the supervision of a physician.

Here's a breakdown of those and other key differences:

Profession Medical Assistants Physician Assistants
Job Duties Perform administrative tasks such as updating medical records and arranging for lab services and clinical duties such as taking medical histories and recording vital signs. Practice medicine under a physician's supervision, often serving as the principal health care provider in rural or inner-city clinics. 
Education Many medical assistants start out with a certificate, which usually takes about one year to complete, or an associate's degree, which typically takes two years.   Most physician assistants earn a master's degree (MA-PA: takes about two years, including classroom study and clinical rotation). Other options: bachelor's degree (BA-PA: usually four years, including two-year PA phase), combined bachelor's/master's degree (usually five years), associate's degree (about two years).  
Licensing / certification To become a certified medical assistant, you must graduate from an accredited medical assistant training program and pass a certifying exam. You can work as an MA without being certified, but most employers and some states require certification for MAs do things like draw blood. More about certification You must be licensed by a state board to practice as a physician assistant. To be eligible for a PA license, you have to pass a national certifying exam, which requires that you graduate from an accredited physician assistant training program. More about certification.
Pay Median annual salary: $29,370  Median annual salary: $90,930  
Job Growth 29 percent increase through 2022  38 percent increase through 2022 
Next step? Many medical assistants move on to positions with more specialized responsibilities such as office managers or nurses. With some additional education and on-the-job training, PAs can specialize in areas such as internal medicine, oncology, emergency medicine, pediatrics and neonatology.

One way these two fields are similar: Most medical assistants and physician assistants work in primary care settings, where jobs are growing much faster than average, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Why? Because health care providers are working to adopt a team-oriented approach with an eye toward cutting costs and meeting the day-to-day health care needs of a graying population.

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2014-15 Occupational Outlook Handbook;  Medical Assistants, Physician Assistants; Physician Assistant Education Association.

The salary and job growth information listed is based on a national average, unless noted. Actual salaries may vary greatly based on specialization within the field, location, years of experience and a variety of other factors. National long-term projections of employment growth may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions, and do not guarantee actual job growth.