What is the difference between a doctor and a physician assistant?

October 16, 2013

Article by Global Pre-Meds
Hospital doctor shadowing & global health experience programs.

Click here for 2021 shadowing opportunities

The main difference between a doctor and a physician assistant is that a PA works under the supervision of a doctor, whereas a doctor has full responsibility for a clinical situation. Both are qualified medical professionals, and very much work in collaboration with one another.

For students wondering which path to take, our doctor shadowing programs are a great way to gain first-hand experience on the hospital frontline and help you make an informed decision. You will shadow a medical doctor, who will give you a balanced experience of medical and surgical cases in the hospital. They will ensure that you observe cases that peak your interest, and help you understand the various roles within a medical institution.

This article will outline some of the key differences between the role of a doctor and that of a physician assistant.

What it takes to become a doctor

To become a doctor, you will have to invest long years into the education and training that is required to become proficient in diagnosing ailments, determining the appropriate treatment options and prescribing the medication. It takes four years to obtain an undergraduate degree from medical school, another two years to obtain a medical degree or MD and then three to seven additional years of residency training before you can obtain a license to practice medicine or surgery. Doctors are board-certified on the national level and must obtain a state license where they practice.

What it takes to become a physician assistant

While becoming a physician assistant is no mean feat, it requires fewer years of schooling than a fully-fledged doctor. PA qualifications vary slightly from one state to another but obtaining a license to practice usually requires a four-year degree and completion of an accredited physician assistant program, which is generally a 27-month course. To obtain a PA license you will also have to have successfully completed a one-year clinical rotation where you will gain hands-on medical experience. As a practicing PA, you will be required to complete ongoing continued education classes and you will be subjected to regular re-testing of your medical expertise.

Difference in job functions

A physician assistant is a medical professional who operates under a doctor’s supervision. Both the doctor as well as the PA, share patient care responsibility. A scope of a PA’s duties include examining patients, diagnosing illnesses, taking the patient’s history, developing and carrying out treatment plans, counseling patients on healthcare plans and suturing wounds.

The main duties of a PA overlap with that of a doctor across several aspects; except for a few major procedures such as surgery. Physician assistants may assist doctors in surgical procedures but they themselves are not licensed to perform surgery.

Other than that, the major difference in job functions between a doctor and a physician assistant is that a doctor works autonomously whereas a PA always works in conjunction with a doctor. In some states physician assistants are authorized to write prescriptions whereas in some they cannot. This is something you need to find out from the authorities in each state before you start practicing.

Cost of becoming a physician assistant

The average cost of resident tuition for a 27-month physician assistant program is $71,369 (27 months is the average program length). The average four-year cost of medical school is $278,866 for private schools and $207,866 for public schools (correct as of 2018).

Job prospects & salaries of physician assistant

Doctor and PA salaries vary widely depending on the state as well as the healthcare setting. The average doctor’s salary can range from about $200,000 to $300,000 a year. Depending on the study, Doctors rank #1 to #6 in best paying jobs in the the US. Employment for medical doctors is projected to grow 14% in the next 10 years, which is twice as fast as the average for all occupations.

The average salary for physician assistants can range from about $86,000 to $120,000 a year. If you are interested in pursuing a career in medicine but you are not keen on doing 6 to 10 years of rigorous studying and training, you should consider becoming a physician assistant. The job prospects in this profession are tremendous. Many clinics where surgery is not performed prefer to hire a PA instead of a doctor as it works out much cheaper for them. Also, busy physicians are always in need of PAs to attend to their less critical cases so you know that this job is always in demand.

Doctor and physician assistant shadowing programs

If you’re considering whether to pursue a career as a doctor or as a PA, you may be interested in our Global Pre-Meds hospital shadowing program for university and high school students. You can find details by visiting our homepage.