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

Just because a health care career has the word "assistant" in its job title, it doesn't necessarily mean your education will be less strenuous or a less of a commitment to time and effort than other roles—or that your duties will be confined to that of an aide and helper. A good example of two health care careers that could not be more different—but might be confusing due to "assistant" being in the title—are Medical Assistant and Physician Assistant.

Short and sweet, a medical assistant is more of an entry- to-mid level career while as a physician assistant you will assist and perform advanced duties with a practicing physician.

So, while these two in-demand health care professions sound an awful lot alike, they actually share very little in common when it comes to day-to-day tasks, education requirements and salary. There are vastly different time and commitment levels needed for you to earn your degree, and the job duties and expertise required are also at opposite ends of the spectrum.

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

If you're just entering the health care field, you'll want to consider a medical assistant career; if you've been in the field, have your bachelor's degree and are looking to move up the ladder, earning your master's degree and pursuing your national certification from an accredited PA training program may be the course for you.

Here are all of the key differences for both careers side-by-side:

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: $29,960 Median annual salary: $95,820  
Job growth
23 percent increase through 2024 30 percent increase through 2024
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, first offices of physicians, then hopitals at a state and local level, where jobs are most often found, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Another way these two career fields are similar is in job growth itself, as you can see from the chart above. While growth for all careers on a national average is resting at seven percent through 2024, both medical assistant and physician assistant roles are growing at a much faster than average rate for all occupations.

Why the increase? 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 2016-17 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.

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