What Degree(s) Do You Need to Become a PA?

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People often assume aspiring patient-care practitioners must take one of two educational paths—medical school or nursing school—but there's a third option. Doctors and nurses aren't the only medical professionals who treat patients. Physician assistants, or PAs, are qualified to diagnose, treat and monitor patients much like doctors and nurse practitioners do. They also have one of the best-paid patient-focused jobs in health care and are found in nearly every specialty area of medicine, including surgery.

A specialized master’s degree is the minimum education requirement for becoming a PA in all 50 states, and the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA) ensures all physician assistant degree programs meet the same rigorous standards. However, that doesn't mean all physician assistant education programs are the same. When it receives Accreditation - Provisional status in 2022, University of Pittsburgh's hybrid PA program will be one of the few accredited PA programs with a flexible hybrid format that accommodates working professionals.

This guide explores how to become a PA in more detail, the rigorous education physician assistants must complete to enter the profession and how University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences' Physician Assistant Studies Hybrid Program offers a new approach to physician assistant education.

Who Usually Becomes a Physician Assistant?

Traditional and hybrid PA programs tend to attract people looking to make a more profound impact in health care. They're often excited by the prospect of earning the credentials necessary to do work similar (or in some cases identical) to that of full-fledged doctors in the same amount of time it takes to become an advanced practice registered nurse.

Students in most physician assistant education programs are already RNs, EMTs, medical assistants or otherwise working in patient care roles. This is by design. Most PA master's programs, including University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences' PAS-Hybrid program, require that applicants amass hundreds of hours of hands-on patient care experience before applying. The ideal MS in PA Studies candidate is comfortable interfacing with patients because they have worked with patients before.

However, some universities admit students without direct patient experience into MS in Physician Assistant Studies programs. Students in those programs have experience in non-clinical health care fields such as patient advocacy, medical translation, patient safety compliance and medical or pharmaceutical research.

The best way to find out if you'll be a good fit for a traditional or hybrid PA program is to contact an enrollment advisor. Pitt enrollment advisors keep a complete list of paid and volunteer patient care positions that meet the hybrid PA program application requirements. They can answer any questions you have about program faculty and physician assistant studies student outcomes.

Is There a Standard PA Education Pathway?

Most aspiring PAs begin by pursuing bachelor's degrees in health care or one of the sciences, though a few universities offer pre-PA programs at the undergraduate level. Other students enroll in physician assistant education programs with bachelor’s degrees in non-health-related fields. They typically spend extra time before or after graduation taking undergraduate-level STEM courses to ensure they meet the admission requirements for PA studies programs.

After earning a bachelor's degree, aspiring PAs must enroll in and finish an ARC-PA-accredited physician assistant studies program. These programs go by various names, including the Master of Physician Assistant Studies, the MS in Physician Assistant Studies, the Master of Health Sciences (MHS) in Physician Assistant Studies and the Master of Clinical Health Services (MCHS).

Pitt offers a Physician Assistant Studies Hybrid Program that delivers much of the didactic year one curriculum virtually. The first half of the program covers clinical medicine, pharmacology, working with patients, diagnostic and therapeutic procedures, health policy and surgery. PAS-Hybrid candidates also complete three immersive experiences on the University's Pittsburgh campus, during which they can practice hands-on skills.

The second half of traditional and hybrid PA programs is devoted to rotations designed to give students clinical experience in a wide variety of patient care settings. These intense rotations introduce PA students to multiple medical specialties and ensure they graduate ready to deliver quality patient care while supporting a primary provider or surgeon.

After finishing PA school, graduates sit for the 300-question, five-hour, multiple-choice Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE). Upon passing the PANCE, they receive the Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C) credential. However, PAs cannot legally practice until licensed by a state medical board. Each state has unique licensing processes and requirements, which are typically outlined in detail on the state medical board website.

In Pennsylvania, for example, PAs with a PA-C apply for state licensure by filling out the Pennsylvania State Board of Medicine's licensure application, paying a $30 application fee and submitting a clean criminal background check, a report from the National Practitioner Data Bank, letters of good standing, official verification of education and a resume. They must also complete approved training in child abuse recognition and reporting, pain management or identifying addiction when prescribing or dispensing opioids.

How Long Does It Take to Earn an MS in PA Studies?

Most students can earn a degree in PA studies in about two years, provided they meet the prerequisite course and patient care experience requirements. For instance, Pitt's 82-credit PA Studies Hybrid Program starts in the fall term and lasts 24 months. Students complete 45 credit hours of didactic coursework and eight clinical rotations over six consecutive terms (including summer terms). Prospective applicants who are missing prerequisite coursework or the required health care experience (HCE) or patient care experience (PCE) hours may spend an additional one to two years preparing to enter a PA studies program by taking courses or amassing work experience.

What Classes Will I Take in a Full-time or Hybrid PA Studies Program?

Like most traditional physician assistant education programs, Pitt's hybrid MS in PA Studies program consolidates the didactic curriculum into Year 1. In the fall term, PAS-Hybrid candidates take courses in anatomy and physiology, health policy, quantitative and qualitative research, clinical medicine, genetic and molecular medicine, pharmacology, surgery and patient care fundamentals. The PAS-Hybrid faculty includes physician assistants, physicians, surgeons, pharmacists, nurse practitioners, dentists, genetic counselors and professionals in related specialties. Instructors deliver courses in the didactic component via interactive virtual lectures that prepare students for the required immersion experiences and clinical placements.

What Rotations are Part of the Typical PA Education?

There is no such thing as a 100% online PA program because clinical rotations are a vital part of a physician assistant's education. At University of Pittsburgh, the Year 2 MS in PA Studies curriculum is made up entirely of full-time, five-week rotations in behavioral health, emergency medicine, internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatric, outpatient medicine and surgical settings. The Department of Physician Assistant Studies' placement team has more than 2,000 clinical slots across the country, ensuring each student can access exceptional clinical placements that are geographically appropriate.

At the end of Year 2, master's degree candidates in the PA program complete an additional 5-credit evaluation: Transition to Professional Practice. The five-week course covers practical issues related to PA practice and evaluates whether each student has met ARC-PA's and Pitt's cognitive and clinical skills performance objectives. The course culminates in an objective examination of each student's medical knowledge, procedural skills, clinical skills and patient care skills, as well as students' critical thinking abilities and professionalism.

What Will I Learn in a Full-time or Hybrid PA program?

Graduate programs for PAs give aspiring physician assistants the clinical experience necessary to be effective health care providers and the confidence to lead health care forward. Pitt's PA Studies Hybrid Program, delivered through the Department of Physician Assistant Studies, has a curriculum consistent with the Core Competencies for New Physician Assistant Graduates established by the Physician Assistant Education Association.

PAS-Hybrid graduates are experts in patient-centered practice, population and public health, health care systems, health care finance, legal aspects of medicine, collaborative practice and health literacy and communication. They have all the skills, knowledge and tools necessary to practice medicine in collaboration with MDs, nurses and specialists and to advocate for patient health and well-being across settings.

How Do I Know if I'm Qualified to Enroll in the PAS-Hybrid Program?

The most crucial step aspiring physician assistants can take in their undergraduate years, regardless of major, is completing the prerequisite coursework required by most physician assistant programs for admission. Required courses typically include chemistry, biology, physiology, anatomy, microbiology and statistics. Pitt PAS-Hybrid applicants must also take and have a minimum GPA of 3.0 in courses in medical terminology, writing and psychology and have a minimum of 500 hours of direct patient care experience.

Don't assume that you won't be a good fit for the program if you're not a perfect match, however. There are many ways to make yourself a more attractive candidate. An enrollment advisor can help you determine what you need to do to put together the strongest possible application.

How to Apply to a PA Master's Program

Students apply to the PAS-Hybrid program by submitting information and application materials through the Central Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA). In addition to filling out the application itself, aspiring PAs must submit the following materials.

  • Two personal statements: The first is a personal statement focused on why the applicant wants to become a PA. The second is an essay that speaks to the mission of the PA Studies Hybrid program and its commitment to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
  • Three letters of recommendation: Students submit one letter from a former university instructor, one letter from a supervisor they worked with while amassing HCE/PCE experience and one character reference describing their commitment to leadership and service.
  • The Basic Life Support Certification from the American Heart Association.

Students admitted to the program must review the Physician Assistant Studies Hybrid Program Technical Standards for admission and graduation, and submit a signed form at the time of matriculation verifying their ability to understand and perform essential skills—both in the program and in a PA career.

Should I Pursue a Degree in PA Studies?

The answer to this question depends on what you've already accomplished and what you want to achieve. Many students in traditional and hybrid PA programs already have experience caring for patients and saving lives.

If you want to transition into a clinical environment and take on more responsibility in health care, Pitt's PAS-Hybrid is a flexible option that gives you more control over when and where you study. Be aware, however, that there is tremendous competition for open spots in traditional and hybrid PA programs. Slightly more than 27,000 people applied to U.S. PA programs in the 2017-2018 academic year, and about 8,800 matriculated into accredited programs. Most master's programs for PAs admit around 7% of applicants, and most institutions' GPA, prerequisite and experience requirements are stringent. However, if you succeed in matriculating into a program such as University of Pittsburgh's PAS-Hybrid, you will have a stable, well-compensated and versatile career ahead of you.

Demand for PAs is higher than the supply of qualified professionals, and it doesn't appear that will change any time soon. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, PAs work in the seventh-fastest growing profession in the country. They're also well compensated for what they do. The cost of a PA studies program can be intimidating, but keep in mind that the average PA earns about $115,000 per year. The highest-paid 10% earn more than $162,000. And what they do is evolving. Hospitals and health systems are putting more physician assistants into administrative roles, which means the number of non-clinical opportunities for PAs is growing.

One additional consideration is that unlike nurse practitioners and doctors, PAs train in many different specialty areas and can transition between specialties with ease. With an MS in Physician Assistant Studies from University of Pittsburgh, you can launch a career in pediatrics, then move into dermatology and wind down your career working in one of the surgical subspecialties. In other words, you'll have more freedom to work in more areas of medicine than most other practitioners but have the same positive impact on your patients' lives.

If you are ready to become a PA, now is the time to apply to University of Pittsburgh's PAS-Hybrid program. Learn more by registering for an upcoming webinar and connecting with the enrollment team to get your questions answered.

The University of Pittsburgh PA Studies Hybrid Program has applied for Accreditation - Provisional from the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). The University of Pittsburgh PA Studies Hybrid Program anticipates matriculating its first class in January 2023, pending achieving Accreditation - Provisional status at the September 2022 ARC-PA meeting. Accreditation - Provisional is an accreditation status granted when the plans and resource allocation, if fully implemented as planned, of a proposed program that has not yet enrolled students appear to demonstrate the program’s ability to meet the ARC-PA Standards or when a program holding accreditation-provisional status appears to demonstrate continued progress in complying with the Standards as it prepares for the graduation of the first class (cohort) of students.

In the event that the program does not achieve accreditation all students who have deposited a seat in the program will receive a full refund. The program will not accept the class until which time provisional accreditation has been granted.

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