What Will You Learn in a PA Master's Program?
If you have considered becoming a physician assistant, or PA, now is a great time to join this growing profession for several reasons. First, there's the job outlook for PAs. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) anticipates 31% employment growth for physician assistants in the coming decade as employers create more than 40,000 new jobs for physician assistants. Second, there's the fact that the vast majority of PAs are highly satisfied with their work—82.7% of physician assistants are happy in their careers, according to a survey by the Journal of the American Academy of PAs (JAAPA). Most importantly, physician assistants have a lot to offer their patients and communities. While the scope of physician assistant practice varies from state to state, many states have adopted expanded scope of practice laws for physician assistants. PAs function as primary care providers and practice evidence-based medicine across specialties. In some parts of the country, physician assistants are helping relieve physician shortages in underserved areas.
Becoming a PA takes about half as long as becoming an MD and costs significantly less. The PAS-hybrid MS in Physician Assistant Studies, for instance, takes just two years to complete and costs about $114,670—versus $250,000 to $330,000 for medical school. Even so, enrolling in a physician assistant studies master's program involves making a significant commitment. Hybrid PA programs may have a flexible coursework schedule, but all master's programs for physician assistants conclude with a series of full-time rotations at various clinical sites.
Learning more about what it’s like to participate in a physician assistant master’s program may help you determine if becoming a physician assistant is right for you. Exploring what physician assistants do and how to become a PA is a critical first step in making this career move.
What is a Physician Assistant?
Physician assistants are advanced practice patient care providers licensed to practice medicine in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, in every medical setting and in all medical specialties. Physician assistants work directly with patients to diagnose injuries and illnesses, create treatment plans, conduct patient evaluations and prescribe medications. Physician assistants can also assist in surgery, order and analyze tests, participate in research in clinical settings and perform minor medical procedures. They typically work collaboratively in teams with other health care providers. All 50 states require physician assistants to have an agreement with and be overseen by a supervising physician, though the level of supervision can vary from setting to setting. Physician oversight is often indirect, and many physician assistants work more or less independently.
What sets physician assistants apart from other advanced practice providers such as nurse practitioners is their versatility. Physician assistant students train in general medicine, and PA studies programs incorporate a broad range of clinical practice experiences in several specialty areas. Consequently, physician assistants can move freely between specialty areas of medicine without additional training required—though many physician assistants do pursue additional certifications and education in specialty areas.
Approximately 150,000 physician assistants in the United States work in community health centers, medical offices, hospitals, nursing homes, schools, government agencies, the armed forces, universities and other settings. These essential health care professionals work in many specialty areas, including acute care, internal medicine, emergency care, family medicine, geriatrics, oncology, pediatrics, emergency medicine, gynecology and obstetrics and surgery.
What Exactly Does the Physician Assistant Master's Program Curriculum Cover?
Physician assistant programs teach PA students the competencies they'll need to treat patients and give them the clinical experience to become leaders in the physician assistant profession. The University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences hybrid PA program curriculum combines didactic courses and clinical rotations on a two-year schedule, pairing interactive virtual lectures with hands-on learning opportunities and excellent clinical placements within the university's network of more than 1,100 health care settings across the country.
As a student in the PAS-Hybrid Program, you will complete 45 credit hours of didactic coursework in the first year covering clinical medicine, pharmacology, working with patients, diagnostic and therapeutic procedures, health policy and surgery. The University of Pittsburgh’s award-winning faculty has decades of educational and clinical experience in medicine. When they’re not teaching, the Department of Physician Assistant Studies faculty move health care forward and promote excellence in patient care.
The three-term first-year curriculum includes the following courses:
- Introduction to the PA Profession
- Human Anatomy
- Health Policy
- Interpreting and Evaluating the Medical Literature
- Introduction to Clinical Medicine
- Medical Physiology and Pathophysiology
- Genetic and Molecular Mechanisms of Health and Disease
- Patient Education & Counseling
- History Taking and Physical Examination 1 and 2
- Clinical Medicine 1 and 2
- Diagnostic & Therapeutic Procedures in Medicine 1 and 2
- Pharmacology 1 and 2
- Health Issues Across the Life Span
- Fundamentals of Surgery
Students in the second year—the clinical year—will participate in eight clinical rotations in different specialty areas, including internal medicine, pediatrics, emergency medicine, surgery, and obstetrical and gynecological medicine. The clinical year experiences, consisting of 37 credits, provide opportunities to apply what you’ve learned in the hybrid PA program coursework in real-world settings.
Do You Need a Background in Health Care to Pursue a Physician Assistant Master's?
Most physician assistants start on this career path by earning bachelor's degrees in biology, health science or other STEM disciplines. Majoring in science ensures you graduate with the necessary prerequisite science courses to apply to PA studies programs. However, there is a much more important PA studies program admission requirement you'll need to meet before you can become a physician assistant: the patient care experience requirement.
Enrollment in most physician assistant studies programs is limited to applicants with documented experience working—or in some cases, volunteering—in health care settings. Physician Assistant Studies Hybrid Program applicants have a minimum of 500 hours of direct, hands-on patient care experience. PA studies degree candidates are often EMTs or paramedics, medical assistants, nurse's aides or nursing assistants, registered nurses or therapists.
To find out more about the University of Pittsburgh's patient care experience requirements or for a complete list of paid and volunteer patient care positions that meet the PAS-Hybrid application requirements, contact an enrollment advisor at PittPAHybrid@shrs.pitt.edu. You won't need to take the GRE to apply.
Should You Enroll in a Physician Assistant Program?
Only you can answer that question. But if you currently work in patient care and want to do more, a physician assistant studies program can help you launch a health care career in a field defined by versatility, a promising job market, competitive salaries and a surprising degree of work-life balance. U.S. News & World Report ranks physician assistants high on its list of the 100 best jobs in the United States, best health care jobs and best STEM jobs, yet the demand for physician assistants is so high that three-quarters of PAs receive multiple job offers upon graduation.
More importantly, you'll be prepared to make a difference in health care once you graduate from a program such as the University of Pittsburgh's MS in Physician Assistant Studies. In some areas of the United States, physician assistants are the only licensed health care providers for miles around. Physician assistants may be the key to solving provider shortages in a health care system stretched thin by a multi-year pandemic.
Don't assume a physician assistant career is out of reach. Pitt's hybrid PA program is unique in that it gives you more control over when and where you study in a discipline with very few flexible master’s degree programs. Accredited physician assistant programs at the master’s level with an online component account for only 5% of conferrals. The School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences is committed to producing the next generation of providers willing to push the envelope and adapt to industry changes, which is why the University of Pittsburgh built flexibility into the PAS-Hybrid Program classroom experience.
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.