Is a physician assistant a doctor?

April 14, 2021

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

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Many premed and prehealth students are trying to decide which career in healthcare is right for them, as many careers and specialities perform similar work. Physician assistants and doctors, for example, have similar scopes of work, which leads students to ask: is a physician assistant a doctor?

The answer is no, a physician assistant is not a doctor. As the name implies, a PA assists a physician or doctor with their work. However, in terms of qualifications and medical knowledge, there are some commonalities between the two professions.

In this article, we’ll explain some similarities and differences between a physician assistant and doctor, so that you can decide which career might be best for you. 

We provide students the opportunity to get real world experience at international hospitals and clinics so that they can decide which career in healthcare is right for them. You can learn directly from a medical doctor as you observe the inner workings of healthcare facilities, including all the professions that assist with patient care.

A doctor’s scope of work

When we refer to doctors, we are either talking about medical doctors (M.D.) or doctors of osteopathic medicine (D.O.). While there are some differences between the two, which you can read about here, patients are unlikely to notice a difference in care, so we will discuss them together for the purposes of this article. 

Generally speaking, doctors are responsible for giving advice on preventative care, examining patients, prescribing medications, ordering and interpreting diagnostic tests, and taking and keeping medical histories. Methods of treatment can include prescribed medications, as well as surgical procedures

Doctors can be in many specialties. Some specific types of physicians include anesthesiologists, family physicians, pediatricians, obstetricians/gynecologists (OBGYN), psychiatrists, and surgeons

To become doctors, students have to complete an undergraduate degree and then a four-year medical school degree. Following their successful completion of medical school, they must also complete their hands-on residency training, which can be anywhere from 3 to 7 years depending on the specialty. 

After completing your residency, you may have to pass your board certification for your specialty and then receive a state license to practice. 

Doctors can work alone and even own their own practice once they have become fully licensed. So when people ask – is a physician assistant a doctor – this is one of the key differences between the roles and responsibilities of a doctor versus that of a PA.

What is the role of a PA?

According to the American Academy of PAs, the role of physician assistant was established in 1967. While physician assistants are not doctors, their scope of practice is very similar to that of an M.D. or a D.O.

Physician assistants also examine patients, diagnose illnesses, develop treatment plans, and prescribe medications. PAs practice in every state, medical setting, and specialty – just like a doctor. 

One difference between a physician assistant and doctor is that PAs cannot perform surgical procedures alone. However, they can assist a doctor in that procedure. In general, PAs can do much of the same work, but if they are unsure or have higher risk cases then they may ask a doctor for a consult.

In terms of educational requirements, to become a PA you must also be educated at a master’s degree level. However, physician assistant programs are usually 27 months, unlike the four years of medical school for doctors. 

You must also complete 2,000 hours of clinical rotations and pass your certification exam. PAs need to have continuing education credits and get re-certified every ten years. 

How do you decide between becoming a PA and a doctor? 

Many students ask if a physician assistant is a doctor when they’re trying to choose a career path. Doctors and PAs are very similar in terms of what they do, so the best way to decide is through job shadowing. 

You can shadow a doctor at your local hospital or clinic, or ask your school advisor if they know someone you can shadow. You can also apply to a curated program, where they find great placements for you, instead of having to look for the right opportunity yourself.

At Global Pre-Meds, we provide hospital doctor shadowing and global health experience programs for students in high school or in university. We can help you get the experience you need on the frontlines of international hospitals and clinics, so that you can decide what’s right for you.

Physician assistants are common in the U.S. and Canada, and there are other similar roles in foreign countries. But given the similarities between the professions, you’ll want to shadow a PA in your home country in addition to shadowing a doctor – either internationally or locally. 

Shadowing is the best way to understand what a job entails. You’ll get to observe a healthcare professional in their work day, and be able to ask any questions you might have. 

You should also take some time to independently research how much time and money it will take to earn your degree and become licensed as a PA or an MD. These are serious factors to consider before choosing your career. 

Doctors have higher salaries than PAs, but that is due to the longer, more expensive schooling, so it is something to think about. 

You’ll also want to consider what specialty is interesting to you – which is another way shadowing can help with the decision. If you can, shadow doctors and PAs in multiple specialties, so you can see a wide range of medical cases. 

These experiences will also help you when you are compiling your resume and writing your personal statements to your chosen program. Getting experience abroad can be an even greater advantage over the many other applicants to the same programs.

So if you’re asking, is a physician assistant a doctor? Or you want help deciding which role is right for you, you should consider one of our programs. We can help you get frontline clinical experience shadowing doctors and observing other healthcare professionals at work. You can learn more about our programs here