What is a PA?

So many people have been asking me what a PA is so I have a brief little summation for ya about what a PA is and what they do. PA stands for Physician Assistant, which is a midlevel medical provider, hence the name of this blog, “Midlevel Mindset”. PAs practice medicine as part of a healthcare team along side MDs and DOs. Physician Assistants are able to order tests, interpret results, diagnose, develop treatment plans for their patients, and prescribe medications. PAs are trained in the medical model similar to the way that doctors are trained which makes their training complementary to physicians. PAs are able to practice medicine autonomously, which means that they are able to practice medicine independently.

I have attached a link to a website containing more information about PAs:

https://www.aapa.org/What-is-a-PA/

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PA School vs Med School

“Why don’t you become a real doctor?” or “you’re too smart to be ‘just’ a PA.” These are just some of the phrases I heard numerously when telling people I wanted to become a physician assistant. Many people did not quite understand my desire nor do they comprehend all of the immense benefits associated with being a physician assistant as opposed to a doctor. In this blog, I have outlined some of the key reasons why I chose to go to PA school over medical school.

So first and foremost, I think the most obvious benefit to PA school versus medical school is the time commitment. PA schools range between 24-32 months, with most programs being just over 2 years. Medical school is 4 years with a required residency of additional 3-8 years. While there are residency programs for physician assistants, they are not required in order to practice. Also, most PA residencies are only a year long program. You are getting finished with school and settled into your career far sooner as a PA than you would as a doctor.

Doctors have to be specialized. They attend a residency program and must be board certified in their particular area of practice. This limits the amount of subspecialties a doctor can practice in his/her career. PAs do not have to be board certified in a subspecialty. PAs have the freedom and capability to switch from one specialty to another as often as they want in their career. This is debatably the most attractive quality of this career to me. I love the idea that I could practice cardiology for a years, then switch to neurology, then maybe try a surgical specialty. I tend to get bogged down by monotony, so this aspect allows PAs to be dynamic and opens them up to endless opportunities.

This fluidity between specialties allows for a slowing down towards retirement. I work in an ER and have talked to multiple ER docs who have expressed that emergency medicine is not something they could still do into their late 50’s and early 60’s. Many subspecialties are more grueling on the body than others. By being allowed to change specialties, as you get older and closer to retirement, you can switch to specialty that is easier for you.

Another reason I chose to go to PA school is because the job market is exploding with jobs! With the ever changing healthcare reform in our country, many hospitals and practices are looking at ways to trim costs. PAs can do nearly all the same things that physicians can, at a third of the price. By paying less out in salaries, but having the same level of productivity, businesses can be more profitable by utilizing physician assistants.

Physician assistants can perform approximately 80% of the functions that doctors can, as long as they are operating under the medical license of a doctor. One of the things that attracts me the most to a career as a PA is that they can practice medicine autonomously, however they also have a supervising physician to rely on in case they need help.

In all reality, the two careers, PAs and physicians are the perfect complement to each other. Physicians have 4 years of medical school plus an additional specialized training in a subspecialty, whereas PAs are trained in the generalist model with an overview in many topics and can then trained in a specific subspeciality by a physician. They can both be more productive by utilizing each other appropriately.

Choosing the Right PA School

Choosing the right PA school is crucial to your success at getting into a program. There are currently 218 programs that are accredited by ARC-PA, as well as dozens applying for accreditation each year. So the question is, which schools should I apply to?

Luckily, there are many sites that provide lists of accredited programs as well as their requirements for admission. You can match up your GPA, health care experience hours, prerequisite course work, etc. with the requirements of the programs. A few of the sites I used when selecting the PA schools I applied to are:

  1. http://directory.paeaonline.org
  2. http://www.arc-pa.org/accreditation/accredited-programs/
  3. https://caspa.liaisoncas.com/applicant-ux/#/login

Personally, I preferred using the PAEA online directory as you could also filter out a list of schools by state, because for me, location was an important factor. CASPA also allowed you to filter by state. CASPA stands for Centralized Application Service for Physician Assistants. This is the online website used to send one centralized application to all of the schools you choose to apply to. This is another reason I liked using CASPA; you could search and apply to schools on your list all in one site.

Once you find a list of schools from one of the above sites, go to each schools’ website and first double check that you meet the criteria. Some of the schools have not updated their information on these sites listed above, so they may require an additional prerequisite course or more patient care hours. Next, you want to choose a school that you not only meet, but exceed the minimum requirements for admission. Most schools have published stats of their accepted students from past years. The accepted student profile or statistics page will give you a guide for what you should compare yourself to. For example, a school may have a minimum GPA requirement of 3.00, however the average GPA of their accepted students is 3.50. You want to be sure you are only applying to schools that you will be competitive at, so be sure to align yourself with not only the minimums, but the averages as well.

Once you have identified schools in which you are competitive both academically and with your patient care hours, it is important to find a program that you truly fit. It sounds very cliche, but feeling at home in a PA program is vital to your success in the program. If you do not get along well with your classmates and do not like the faculty, you will not be happy in the program. During my application cycles, I interviewed at several different programs. After leaving one interview, I remember thinking to myself that I would never be happy there; the faculty seemed standoffish and cold, and the other students there were not of a similar personality to myself. I knew instantly I would not click there. However, when I was at my interview at Touro University Nevada (the program I will be matriculating to in the Summer 2017), I instantly felt at home. The program director reminded me of my father, the faculty was so welcoming, and I meshed so well with the other students I met there that day.

There are many important factors to consider when choosing a PA school. It is important to remember to stop and truly consider the other social and personal aspects of PA school as well. I was born and raised in the state of Arizona. I would have been miserable in a program in Wisconsin, that is far too cold for me! You want to choose somewhere you realistically could be happy for 2 years and somewhere you will become the midlevel provider you have always wanted to be.

A little PSA for ya…

So you may also be wondering what I meant earlier by accredited programs. ARC-PA is the Accreditation Review Commission. They set strict educational standards on what PA programs must teach as well as requirements regarding the clinical rotations. A PA school must submit their curriculum and clinical sites to ARC-PA for approval in order to start an accredited program.

Why an accredited program you ask? If the program you attend is not accredited by ARC-PA then you are not eligible to sit for the PANCE exam (Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam). Without passing the PANCE exam, you will not be able to license and practice as a physician assistant.