Smiling medical team standing outside

Medical Assistant vs. Physician Assistant

Learn the Differences in Duties, Responsibilities, Certifications, Salary, and Job Outlook

Smiling medical team standing outside

The role of Medical Assistant (MA) and Physician Assistant (PA) is similar in that they both treat and care for patients and support physicians. PAs, however, have greater responsibility and can perform a more extensive range of duties, including many of the services that a physician performs. All states require that Physician Assistants be licensed. As a result, the role of PA requires considerably more education.

Physician Assistant jobs require a master’s degree, which typically takes 2 years of study after earning your bachelor’s degree. This means a PA career will require about 6 years of post-secondary education. On the other hand, MA programs typically require only 9 to 12 months. Earning your MA diploma will make you more qualified to continue your education and pursue other medical positions with greater responsibility, including Licensed Practical Nurse, Registered Nurse, or Physician Assistant.

If you’re thinking about starting a career in healthcare, now’s the time to do it. The need for qualified healthcare workers has never been greater, and the number of available employment opportunities is also very high. However, with so many career options available, you may be uncertain which role is best for you—given your goals, preferences, lifestyle, and strengths and weaknesses.

This article provides a head-to-head comparison of a Medical Assistant and a Physician Assistant. You will discover how these healthcare professionals have their own unique job responsibilities, educational requirements, job outlook, and earning potential.

If you’re interested in becoming a Medical Assistant or Physician Assistant, we hope the information provided here will help you understand your options and find the most rewarding and satisfying healthcare career for your future.

Click here to read our comprehensive guide on how to become a Medical Assistant.

Medical Assistant vs. Physician Assistant: Definition

What is a Medical Assistant?

Medical Assistants play a vital role in the delivery of healthcare in many medical practices. MAs perform administrative duties such as maintaining patient records, bookkeeping, billing, and insurance processing. They also perform clinical duties such as preparing patients for procedures, conducting lab tests, administering medications, drawing blood samples, and other tasks under the supervision of a doctor or nurse. By performing many of the routine clinical and clerical duties in a medical practice, MAs give doctors and nurses more time to examine and treat patients.

What is a Physician Assistant?

A Physician Assistant is a mid-level healthcare provider that can perform many of the same services that a physician performs. PAs may diagnose illnesses, develop and manage treatment plans, prescribe medications, and may serve as principal healthcare providers. PAs are required in nearly all states to have a direct agreement with a physician for supervision and collaboration.

Medical Assistant vs. Physician Assistant: Job Description

What Does a Medical Assistant Do?

Medical Assistants may perform a variety of patient care and office administration tasks. Because they handle many of the more routine duties, MAs enable doctors and nurses to dedicate more of their time to examining and treating their patients. Most Medical Assistants work in physician offices, hospitals, outpatient care centers, and offices of medical specialists.

Some of the day-to-day responsibilities of a Medical Assistant include:

  • Recording patient history and personal information
  • Measuring a patient’s vital signs, such as blood pressure and temperature
  • Helping physicians with patient examinations
  • Giving patients injections or medications as directed by a physician or nurse
  • Explaining treatment procedures to patients
  • Answering telephones and scheduling patient appointments
  • Filling out insurance forms and coding patient medical information
  • Updating and filing patient medical records
  • Handling correspondence, billing, and bookkeeping

What Does a Physician Assistant Do?

Physician Assistants practice medicine in teams with physicians, surgeons, and other healthcare workers. They examine, diagnose, and treat patients Their specific duties and the extent to which physicians or surgeons must supervise them differ from state to state. PAs work in all areas of medicine, including primary care and family medicine, emergency medicine, surgery, and psychiatry. Some physician assistants make house calls or visit nursing homes to treat patients.

The work of Physician Assistants depends on their specialty or the type of medicine they practice. For example, a PA working in surgery may close incisions and provide care before, during, and after the operation. A PA working in pediatrics may examine a child and give routine vaccinations.

In some areas, predominantly rural and medically underserved communities, Physician Assistants may be the primary care providers at clinics where a physician is present only 1 or 2 days per week. In these locations, Physician Assistants collaborate with the physician as needed and as required by law.

Some of the day-to-day responsibilities of a Physician Assistant include:

  • Taking or reviewing patients’ medical histories
  • Examining patients
  • Ordering and interpreting diagnostic tests, such as x-rays or blood tests
  • Diagnosing a patient’s injury or illness
  • Giving treatment, such as setting broken bones and immunizing patients
  • Educating and counseling patients and their families—for example, answering questions about how to care for a child with asthma
  • Prescribing medicine
  • Assessing and recording a patient’s progress
  • Researching the latest treatments to ensure the quality of patient care
  • Conducting or participating in outreach programs, talking to groups about managing diseases, and promoting wellness

Medical Assistant vs. Physician Assistant: Education

Educational Requirements for Medical Assistants

Most Medical Assistants hold a diploma or associate degree in medical assisting. MA programs are offered at community colleges, vocational schools, technical schools, and universities. Diploma programs take about 9 to 12 months to complete, while associate’s degree programs usually take about two years to complete. After graduation, you may want to add another month or two to study for, schedule, and take a certification exam.

If you want to start your healthcare career sooner rather than later, the MA program may be the right educational path. The MA training typically includes instruction in both clinical and administrative duties, giving you a solid background to pursue greater responsibility in nursing or office administration as a career. If your ultimate goal is to be a Physician Assistant, you will eventually need to earn a bachelor’s degree, so you might want to earn an associate’s degree in Medical Assisting first. Many of the credits may apply to your bachelor’s degree, and the MA training and experience will provide valuable background for your PA career.

Although most Medical Assistants are not required to hold a state license or certification to practice in the field, most of today’s employers require or strongly prefer MAs with at least one certification. MAs who perform specific duties (such as phlebotomy or x-rays) or who work in specialized fields (such as podiatry or ophthalmology) may be required to have specific training and certification in their area of specialty. In 2012, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services also ruled that only credentialed MAs are allowed to enter the laboratory, radiology, and medical orders into their computerized system.

Click here to read our guide on the best Medical Assistant certifications for your healthcare career.

Close up of healthcare professional with a stethoscope

Educational Requirements for Physician Assistants

Physician Assistants typically need a master’s degree from an accredited educational program. Earning that degree usually takes at least 2 years of full-time postgraduate study.

Most applicants to PA education programs already have a bachelor’s degree and some patient care work experience. Although admission standards vary, most programs require 2 to 4 years of undergraduate coursework with a focus on science. Bachelor’s degrees are often in healthcare fields or in another field, such as business. Many applicants already have experience as registered nurses or as EMTs and paramedics before they apply to a Physician Assistant program.

PAs complete their training in less time than a traditional medical degree and do not complete any residency training. The educational model for PAs was based on the accelerated training of physicians during World War II to answer the critical need for qualified medical providers.

Physician Assistant education programs usually take at least 2 years of full-time study. PA programs typically include classroom and laboratory instruction in subjects such as pathology, human anatomy, physiology, clinical medicine, pharmacology, physical diagnosis, and medical ethics. The programs also include supervised clinical training in several areas, including family medicine, internal medicine, emergency medicine, and pediatrics.

Sometimes students serve in one or more clinical rotations in these areas under the supervision of a physician who is looking to hire a physician assistant. In this way, clinical rotations may lead to permanent employment.

All states require Physician Assistants to be licensed. To become licensed, candidates must pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) from the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA).

To keep their certification, physician assistants must complete 100 hours of continuing education every 2 years. The recertification exam is required every 10 years.

In addition, state licensure laws require Physician Assistants to hold an agreement with a supervising physician. Although the physician does not need to be onsite at all times, collaboration between physicians and physician assistants is required for practice.

Medical Assistant vs. Physician Assistant: Salary

How Much Do Medical Assistants Make?

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average salary* earned by Medical Assistants in 2020 was around $37,000 or about $18 per hour. MAs who earned salaries in the top 10 percent made more than $50,500 per year.

Highest Paying States for Medical Assistants

According to the BLS, these are the states where you’re most likely to find the top-paying jobs for medical assistants:

State Hourly Pay Average Salary
Alaska $22.41 $46,610
Washington $21.97 $45,700
Washington D.C. $21.80 $45,340
Massachusetts $20.72 $43,090
Minnesota $20.72 $43,090

Stethoscope next to money

Highest Paying Cities for Medical Assistants

According to the BLS, these are the cities where you’re most likely to find the top-paying jobs for medical assistants:

City Hourly Pay Average Salary
San Francisco, CA $25.94 $53,960
Vallejo, CA $25.80 $53,660
Santa Rosa, CA $25.25 $52,520
Seattle, WA $23.59 $49,070
San Jose, CA $23.57 $49,020
Sacramento, CA $23.37 $48,600
Olympia, WA $22.85 $47,530
Anchorage, AK $22.02 $45,790
Santa Cruz, CA $21.63 $44,980
Longview, WA $21.53 $44,780

How Much Do Physician Assistants Make?

According to the BLS, the average salary* earned by Physician Assistants in 2020 was around $116,080 or about $56 per hour. Physician Assistants who earned salaries in the top 10 percent made more than $162,470 per year.

Highest Paying States for Physician Assistants

According to the BLS, these are the states where you’re most likely to find the top-paying jobs for Physician Assistants:

State Hourly Pay Average Salary
Alaska $72.32 $150,430
Connecticut $70.24 $146,110
Rhode Island $65.29 $135,800
California $64.99 $135,180
Nevada $64.77 $134,710

Highest Paying Cities for Physician Assistants

According to the BLS, these are the cities where you’re most likely to find the top-paying jobs for Physician Assistants:

City Hourly Pay Average Salary
Salinas, CA $80.88 $168,220
Waterbury, CT $79.44 $165,230
Portsmouth, NH $75.97 $158,020
Yuba City, CA $74.92 $155,830
Santa Rosa, CA $73.87 $153,660
San Jose, CA $72.84 $151,500
Anchorage, AK $72.07 $149,910
Yakima, WA $72.07 $149,900
Norwich, CT $71.50 $148,720
New Haven, CT $71.41 $148,520

Medical Assistant vs. Physician Assistant: Job Outlook

Medical Assistant Job Outlook

According to the BLS, the overall employment of medical assistants is projected to grow 18 percent through 2030, much faster than the average for all occupations (8%).

As the older portion of our population continues to grow, so will the demand for preventive medical services, which physicians often provide. In addition, healthcare facilities will hire more medical assistants to perform routine administrative and clinical duties, allowing the physicians and nurses to see more patients.

Healthcare professionals shaking hands

Physician Assistant Job Outlook

According to the BLS, employment of Physician Assistants is projected to grow at a remarkable 31 percent through 2030, which is much faster than the average for all occupations.

The growing and aging of our population means we will have a greater need for healthcare services in the future. In addition, an increase in the number of patients with chronic diseases, such as diabetes, will also increase healthcare demand, driving the need for healthcare providers, including Physician Assistants.

Physician Assistants can provide many of the same services as physicians.  For this reason, PAs are expected to have a growing role in providing healthcare services because they can be trained more quickly than physicians. Team-based healthcare provision models will continue to evolve and become more commonly used. Physician Assistants will have growing roles in all areas of medicine as states expand allowable procedures and as insurance companies expand their coverage of Physician Assistant services.

Head-to-Head Comparison: Medical Office Assistant vs. Physician Assistant

Comparison Physician Assistant Medical Assistant
Job Description Examines, diagnoses, and treats patients. Can provide many of the same services as physicians Provides administrative services, basic patient care, and clinical support to doctors and nurses
Average Annual Wage $116,000 in 2020 $37,000 in 2020
Jobs 129,400 720,900
Employment Growth 31% thru 2030 18% thru 2030
Education (Recommended) Master’s degree (5–6 years) 9–12 months of training

Why Is a Physician Assistant a Great Alternative Career Path for Medical Assistants?

The role of Physician Assistant carries a lot more responsibilities and therefore requires more education than a Medical Assistant. So if you’re looking to start your medical career sooner rather than later, an MA program may be your best option because it’s shorter. The MA education and experience is a great place to start your career path to becoming a PA. In fact, many applicants of PA programs already have experience as registered nurses, EMTs, or paramedics before they apply.

Why Choose Eagle Gate College for Your Medical Assistant Training?

Founded in 1979, Eagle Gate College has provided thousands of graduates with the knowledge and skills they need to pursue a rewarding career in nursing and healthcare. With a curriculum continually updated to meet the needs of healthcare, state-of-the-art labs, and hands-on training from experienced healthcare professionals, we prepare graduates to make a positive impact starting with their first day on the job. Our robust Medical Assisting program combines virtual instruction, hands-on lab exercises, and supervised externship and can be completed in as little as 9 months. In conjunction with Provo College, Eagle Gate College offers a premier healthcare education at five campus locations in Utah and Idaho.