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

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Home » Blog » Medical Assistant vs. Physician Assistant
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Written and reported by:
All Allied Health Schools Staff

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.

Main Differences Between Medical and Physician Assistants

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

Job Duties


Medical Assistant

Physician Assistant

  • 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


Medical Assistant

Physician Assistant

  • 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).

Licensing and Certification


Medical Assistant

Physician Assistant

  • 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 to do things like draw blood.
  • 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.

Median Annual Salaries

The difference in salary between medical assistants and physician assistant roles is notable. Take a look at median annual salaries, as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Medical Assistants

National data

Median Salary: $37,190

Projected job growth: 18.4%

10th Percentile: $29,070

25th Percentile: $30,200

75th Percentile: $43,490

90th Percentile: $48,170

Projected job growth: 18.4%

State data

State Median Salary Bottom 10% Top 10%
Alaska $47,400 $37,290 $60,150
Alabama $29,920 $23,470 $37,660
Arkansas $29,970 $24,680 $37,990
Arizona $37,390 $29,640 $47,250
California $38,780 $30,210 $61,800
Colorado $38,040 $30,310 $48,260
Connecticut $38,000 $32,810 $48,510
District of Columbia $47,550 $36,230 $60,150
Delaware $36,470 $28,990 $47,780
Florida $36,700 $28,910 $46,240
Georgia $36,190 $27,970 $46,450
Hawaii $38,860 $29,990 $48,520
Iowa $37,660 $29,340 $48,160
Idaho $37,120 $29,170 $47,240
Illinois $37,500 $28,990 $47,370
Indiana $36,960 $29,130 $46,890
Kansas $35,340 $28,820 $39,890
Kentucky $33,410 $27,560 $38,320
Louisiana $29,470 $22,640 $38,000
Massachusetts $45,880 $36,780 $59,060
Maryland $37,530 $29,520 $48,310
Maine $37,860 $30,000 $47,890
Michigan $37,120 $29,140 $43,790
Minnesota $46,920 $36,590 $48,510
Missouri $35,280 $28,490 $42,060
Mississippi $29,760 $23,290 $43,120
Montana $37,660 $29,960 $48,150
North Carolina $36,790 $28,990 $46,210
North Dakota $37,310 $28,990 $48,170
Nebraska $36,990 $28,820 $47,510
New Hampshire $38,220 $30,100 $48,490
New Jersey $37,640 $30,150 $47,470
New Mexico $30,750 $28,560 $44,660
Nevada $36,960 $29,400 $47,040
New York $37,860 $29,990 $48,510
Ohio $36,800 $28,890 $45,750
Oklahoma $30,030 $24,840 $38,000
Oregon $45,710 $36,360 $57,600
Pennsylvania $36,680 $29,650 $46,930
Rhode Island $37,860 $29,610 $48,490
South Carolina $34,710 $25,470 $45,070
South Dakota $30,540 $28,040 $45,240
Tennessee $36,280 $28,640 $45,840
Texas $35,520 $27,570 $45,850
Utah $37,120 $28,960 $44,850
Virginia $37,070 $29,460 $48,170
Vermont $37,190 $36,360 $47,780
Washington $47,460 $36,680 $60,150
Wisconsin $38,050 $30,100 $48,190
West Virginia $29,740 $23,310 $37,970
Wyoming $37,410 $29,420 $48,300

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2021 median salary; projected job growth through 2030. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.

Physician Assistants

National data

Median Salary: $121,530

Projected job growth: 31%

10th Percentile: $77,940

25th Percentile: $99,880

75th Percentile: $131,740

90th Percentile: $164,620

Projected job growth: 31%

State data

State Median Salary Bottom 10% Top 10%
Alaska $128,990 $100,690 N/A
Alabama $95,980 $49,200 $152,130
Arkansas $48,060 $36,930 $121,470
Arizona $124,870 $80,290 $163,440
California $130,590 $100,950 $192,400
Colorado $121,730 $80,000 $164,620
Connecticut $130,610 $99,920 $192,850
District of Columbia $125,560 $61,710 $168,330
Delaware $120,740 $93,230 $152,920
Florida $101,680 $37,890 $162,820
Georgia $101,040 $48,020 $163,350
Hawaii $87,880 $47,950 $163,360
Iowa $122,630 $96,030 $164,070
Idaho $125,950 $91,070 $135,940
Illinois $121,100 $89,110 $161,790
Indiana $119,790 $78,480 $158,280
Kansas $101,550 $79,600 $146,500
Kentucky $99,510 $47,810 $130,840
Louisiana $101,240 $77,940 $162,440
Massachusetts $129,960 $96,420 $168,740
Maryland $99,880 $61,330 $140,240
Maine $121,470 $98,610 $161,290
Michigan $104,810 $78,620 $133,740
Minnesota $127,870 $100,030 $153,070
Missouri $99,510 $49,360 $137,270
Mississippi $64,280 $37,440 $108,370
Montana $128,190 $99,550 $131,080
North Carolina $107,330 $94,680 $152,130
North Dakota $125,230 $78,870 $163,950
Nebraska $103,830 $82,940 $133,240
New Hampshire $128,190 $96,040 $193,000
New Jersey $129,130 $100,660 $165,170
New Mexico $128,160 $80,040 $167,710
Nevada $130,070 $47,930 $166,520
New York $128,940 $99,760 $167,140
Ohio $102,510 $62,690 $160,090
Oklahoma $127,240 $78,480 $164,070
Oregon $127,690 $99,510 $165,320
Pennsylvania $103,500 $78,770 $136,340
Rhode Island $127,690 $96,420 N/A
South Carolina $99,520 $47,370 $130,230
South Dakota $121,010 $95,970 $131,080
Tennessee $101,070 $77,770 $130,070
Texas $120,740 $61,450 $167,530
Utah $121,010 $81,990 $163,550
Virginia $120,990 $80,280 $161,680
Vermont $127,240 $99,510 $163,400
Washington $130,380 $100,570 $166,550
Wisconsin $121,470 $63,260 $149,280
West Virginia $103,570 $95,730 $144,610
Wyoming $126,110 $97,430 $162,820

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2021 median salary; projected job growth through 2030. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.

Job Growth

Job growth national average for all careers through 2030 is 8% says the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Medical Assistants

18%

Physician Assistants

31%

What’s Next?


  • Medical assistant: Many medical assistants move on to positions with more specialized responsibilities such as office managers or nurses.
  • Physician assistant: With some additional education and on-the-job training, PAs can specialize in areas such as internal medicine, oncology, emergency medicine, pediatrics and neonatology.