How to Become a Physician Assistant

Exploring the Importance and Benefits of a Physician Assistant Career in Health Care

May 07, 2024
Physician Assistant listens to the heartbeat of their patient.

In the mid-1960s, physicians and educators recognized there was a shortage of primary care physicians. Eugene A. Stead Jr., MD, of the Duke University Medical Center, selected four Navy Hospital Corpsmen who had received considerable medical training during their military service from the Vietnam War, to be the first class of physician assistants/associates (PAs) in 1965. 

In 1967, the PA profession was formally established with the goal of improving and expanding healthcare.

What is a Physician Assistant (PA)?

PAs are licensed medical professionals who practice medicine in every specialty and setting. The PA education emphasizes health and wellness through patient-centered, team-based medical practice. The specific duties of a PA depend on the setting in which they work, their level of experience, their specialty, and state laws.

Generally, PAs can take medical histories, perform physical exams, diagnose, and treat illness, order and interpret tests, develop treatment plans, prescribe medication, counsel on preventative care, perform procedures, assist in surgery, make rounds in hospitals and nursing homes, and do clinical research. Like physicians, they can provide primary care. They work in hospitals, medical offices, community health centers, nursing homes, workplace clinics, educational facilities, and correctional institutions. 

Why become a PA?

The Physician Assistant (PA) profession is one of the fastest growing in the country and ranked No. 2 in Best Health Care Jobs based on U.S. News. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the profession will increase 28 percent from 2021 to 2031, significantly faster than the average for all occupations. 

The PA profession allows for versatility, with the ability to specialize in one or several areas throughout their career. Being a PA provides the ability to give back to the community and develop relationships with patients and make a difference in their quality of life.

An initiative called the PA Compact, an inter-state agreement between the American Academy of Physician Associates (AAPA), the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB), and the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA), greatly simplifies receiving authorization to work in participating member states.

Currently, there are more than 168,300 PAs in the United States, and they make a mean annual wage of $130,490 (via U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Getting the education and certification

To become a PA, you must graduate from an ARC-PA accredited PA program. PAs are educated at the master’s degree level, and admission into a PA program requires a bachelor’s degree and completion of prerequisite courses in basic and behavioral sciences.

Many PA programs also require prior health care experience with direct patient care, such as working as a medical assistant, emergency medicine technician, paramedic, phlebotomist, emergency room technician, surgical technician, military medicine/corpsman, or certified nursing assistant. 

Most PA programs have the following prerequisites: anatomy, physiology, biology, microbiology, chemistry, genetics, and statistics. 

The PA school curriculum is modeled on the medical school curriculum that involves both didactic (classroom) and clinical education training. The didactic phase includes classroom instruction on courses in basic medical sciences, diagnostic and procedural skills, pharmacology and therapeutics, behavioral sciences, and behavioral ethics. In the clinical phase, students complete clinical rotations in medical and surgical disciplines, including family medicine, internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, general surgery, emergency medicine, and behavioral medicine/psychiatry.

PA graduates are eligible to take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). To obtain a state license, all states require that PAs graduate from an accredited PA program and pass the PANCE. 

Why Touro University California?

Founded in 2005, the program is the only joint PA and Public Health program in the United States. In 33 months, you can earn two degrees: a Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies (MSPAS) and Master of Public Health (MPH). The joint degree places graduates at the leading edge of health care and public health — able to view the wellness of people and communities through a public health lens that fosters social justice, diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. 

The joint MSPAS/MPH program at Touro University California (TUC) educates PAs who will provide culturally sensitive care and advocate for under-resourced communities, and care for people while considering their beliefs, lifestyle, and community. TUC provides extra training to students, including a point-of-care ultrasound certificate plus a Lifestyle Coach certification to practice the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Diabetes Prevention Program.

Admission requirements

  • Bachelor's degree (any major) completed at an approved accredited institution.
  • Complete prerequisites with a C or better
  • Overall cumulative and overall science GPA of 3.0 or higher as calculated by the Centralized Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA).
  • Patient Care Experience minimum 1000 hours.
  • Three Letters of Recommendation. One must be from a licensed clinician (PA, MD, DO, NP), one from a supervisor or manager, and the other from whoever the candidate chooses.
  • Community service is not required, but strongly recommended. Preference is given to candidates with 200 hours or more. 

Preference will be given to candidates who serve under-resourced or underserved populations (e.g., rural, immigrant/refugee, unhoused, and other vulnerable and marginalized communities), those who work in settings such as Federally Qualified Health Centers, Community Health Centers, Indian Health Service, prisons, primary care (family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics, obstetrics/gynecology), urgent care, and behavioral health. This may be demonstrated by their patient care hours, health care hours, PA shadowing, or community service/volunteer hours.

Prerequisite courses

Must complete all required coursework before submitting CASPA application. All required coursework must be completed at an institution of higher education accredited by a TUC-approved accrediting body.

The prerequisite courses listed below must be completed with a grade of C or better:

Biological sciences including labs – 8 semester units or 12 quarter units that may be comprised of general biology, genetics, immunology, embryology, etc.

Chemistry including labs – 8 semester units or 12 quarter units that may be comprised of inorganic, organic, or biochemistry.

Human Anatomy including lab – 4 semester units or 5 quarter units that may be combined Human Anatomy & Physiology I & II with lab. Must be completed within 6 years of the expected year of matriculation.

Human Physiology including lab – 4 semester units or 5 quarter units that may be combined Human Anatomy & Physiology I & II with lab. Must be completed within 6 years of the expected year of matriculation.

Microbiology – 3 semester units or 4 quarter units (lab not required).

Ready to learn more about TUC’s PA program? 

Find more information here!