Medical Assistant vs. Physician Assistant (Differences Explained)
As you explore career options within the healthcare field, such as how to train for an entry-level medical career as a medical assistant, you may have run into the other seemingly similar title of “physician assistant” and wondered if – or perhaps even assumed – the roles were interchangeable.
After all, one of the main functions of a medical assistant is to help physicians do their jobs better – “assisting the physician,” in other words.
So, it may surprise you to learn that while both medical assistants and physician assistants each may spend a fair amount of time working with patients, their roles in the medical field couldn’t be more different. This starts with the levels of education, training, and licensing required for each, and it continues into the role itself – the tasks required of each position and the level of professional autonomy that separates medical assistants from highly skilled physician assistants.
This blog post will explain the many differences that exist between physician assistants vs medical assistants, providing you with a guide that will help you determine which role suits you best.
That said, before we dive into the blog post, if you’re interested in becoming a medical assistant, consider enrolling in FCC’s Medical Assistant Program. The great thing about the program is that you can complete it and earn your diploma in as few as 10 months.
Medical Assistant vs. Physician Assistant
Let’s explore the major differences between medical assistants and physician assistants.
What is a Medical Assistant?
Medical assistants work alongside physicians within multiple types of healthcare settings – private practices, outpatient clinics, hospitals, and other medical facilities – for the benefit and optimization of patient services and care. In doing so, medical assistants are cross-trained to perform both administrative and clinical tasks.
A typical medical assistant’s day may include administrative tasks like answering phones, scheduling patient appointments, updating medical records, arranging labs and referrals, and general clerical work. Clinically, medical assistants may also take patients to their exam rooms, take and record patient vitals, assist doctors during patient exams, perform on-site lab tests, and educate patients about treatments, medications, and courses of care.
Medical assistants are required to juggle a lot of different tasks. In doing so, they work closely with nearly everyone on staff within a medical clinic or other healthcare facilities: physicians, nurses, physician assistants, office managers, billing professionals, lab staff, and patients.
What is a Physician Assistant?
A physician assistant is much closer to a medical doctor than a medical assistant. Highly trained and educated in the field, physician assistants are medical providers who, like physicians, diagnose illnesses, develop and manage patient treatment plans, order and perform certain procedures and tests, prescribe medications, and may even serve as a patient’s primary healthcare professional.
If to you this sounds a lot like what a doctor does, you’re right. But, while studies have shown patient outcomes and quality of care is similar when you compare the work of physicians and physician assistants, the position exists to both complement and, in some cases, fill in for doctors when they’re either unavailable or overextended.
In a medical practice, for instance, physician assistants take on some of the more routine tasks of doctors as a way to ease their workloads, helping them focus on more specialized needs. As such, one of the main roles of physician assistants is to help improve the access and quality of healthcare in clinics, hospitals, or entire communities.
What are the Roles and Responsibilities for Medical Assistants vs. Physician Assistants?
The differences in responsibilities and roles between medical assistants and physician assistants are significant. While each of them provides a series of patient-focused tasks that directly affect patient care, education, and satisfaction, physician assistants are able to make a much more proactive approach in diagnosing and treating patients.
Medical assistants, on the other hand, provide both administrative and clinical support for physicians, nurses and, yes, physician assistants. To become an effective medical assistant to those with such a broad range of responsibilities requires that medical assistants possess a substantial toolbox of skills and abilities that you utilize on a daily basis. Such skills allow medical assistants to take on roles that can be broken down into two categories: administrative roles and clinical roles.
Administrative, or “front-office,” skills are required which allow medical assistants to perform the following tasks:
- Schedule patient appointments and referrals
- Update and organize medical charts
- Call prescriptions in to local pharmacies
- Track and order clinic/office inventory
- General computer proficiency
Hospitals, clinics, and private practices expect medical assistants to have the skills they need to effectively perform the following clinical, or “back-office,” tasks, as well:
- Record and update patient records and medical histories
- Take and record vital signs
- Prepare patients for physician exams
- Provide information and instructions to patients
- Assist with medical exams, treatments and procedures
- Clean exam rooms and sterilize equipment
- Collect lab specimens
- Notify patients of lab results
- Administer immunizations
- Remove sutures and change dressings
- Instruct patients about follow-up procedures, medications, special diets, etc.
- Perform ECGs
By comparison, the roles and responsibilities of a physician assistant are more like those of a doctor. These include:
- Making rounds to check on patients
- Performing patient examinations
- Diagnosing illnesses
- Ordering lab tests
- Creating and managing treatment plans
- Prescribe medications
Physician assistants provide these services and others under the direction and supervision of licensed physicians, though they work independently with patients to perform these tasks.
Work Environment – Where Do Physician Assistants vs Medical Assistants Work?
According to the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA), many physician assistants work in office/clinic settings or in hospitals. Physician assistants also work in urgent care facilities, community health centers. Needless to say, from a clinical perspective both medical assistants and medical physicians work within a similar healthcare environment.
The greatest differences between the two lie within the level of care that each can provide. Tasks like scheduling, clerical and billing tasks, signing patients in, and so on, are duties often required by medical assistants. Physician assistants focus more on patient care.
Education Requirements for Medical Assistants vs Physician Assistants
The education required to become a medical assistant compared with a physician assistant is vastly different. Requirements for each can vary per state, of course, but becoming a physician assistant takes longer and requires much more education and medical training than earning a position as a medical assistant.
To begin a career as a medical assistant generally does not require that you earn a specialized diploma nor have a specific license or certification. This holds true in many states, including the State of Florida. It’s possible to become trained as a medical assistant while working side-by-side with a licensed physician in the clinic, in fact. But, as professional bandwidth in a hospital or medical practice is a valuable commodity, most employers require medical assistant applicants to have completed specialized training in medical assisting programs at an accredited school, college, or university.
To become a physician assistant, in comparison, requires one to complete a master’s degree-level physician’s assistant program plus 2,000 hours of clinical rotations. These programs typically last 27 months, or three years if summer breaks are included, and a bachelor’s degree is required in order to be accepted into a physician assistant program. Of all medical professionals, only doctors are required to receive more clinical education than physician assistants.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Physician Assistant vs. Medical Assistant?
Based on the education and clinical training requirements outlined above, it can take several years to become a physician assistant. When you combine everything necessary prior to starting a physician assistant career – a four-year bachelor’s degree, a three-year master’s degree program, and 2,000 hours in clinical rotations – it can easily take eight years or more to fulfill all licensing and certification requirements to begin a physician assistant career.
In contrast, one can train to become a medical assistant in much less time – often less than a year!
In general, though, the time it takes to complete and graduate from a full medical assistant training program primarily depends on that school and program in which you enroll. While programs at vocational schools and career colleges (including Florida Career College) can take just a few months, other programs, such as those at community colleges and universities, can take longer.
FCC offers a Medical Assistant Technician training program that can be completed in as few as 10 months. Our hybrid program includes online education and classes, hands-on, in-person training at one of our many campus medical assistant labs, and real-world externship experience at a local practice or clinic. When finished with all classes, graduates receive a diploma signifying the completion of the program.
Licensing and Certification For Medical Assistants and Physician Assistants
Licensing and certification requirements for medical assistants and physician assistants a quite different. While medical assistants can technically find employment with no certification whatsoever (depending on state requirements and employer preferences), physician assistant certification and licensing is much more rigorous.
After completing a master’s level PA program and completing 2,000 clinical rotation hours, physical assistants must then pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE), which is administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants. Recertification is required every 10 years, and all physician assistants much also take 100 continuing education credit hours every two years in order to maintain their PA-C credentials.
Medical assistants, by comparison, have the option to certify, but it is not required by law in most states. Some, however, find that becoming certified or registered medical assistants can improve their professional value while also helping them stand out in a competitive jobs market. Several potential certifications exist for medical assistants, including the Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) designation by the American Association of Medical Assistants. Also, another certification is the Certified Clinical Medical Assistant certification through the National Health Career Association.
Types of Medical Assistants
Graduating from a medical assistant diploma program at an accredited school is just the first important step in a career of endless learning and training. Once on the job gaining experience within such a broad field like healthcare, medical assistants may find they wish to focus on various levels of specialization. Doing so can, for some, make their career more personally and professionally rewarding.
Some medical assistants may choose to seek a medical assisting career in a particular area of healthcare, as well – areas such as pediatrics, chiropractic, geriatric care, mental health, OB-GYN, cardiology, and so on.
By continually learning and training, and making smart career choices, your long-term journey within the career of medical assisting can more successfully meld with your professional passions and aspirations.
Should You Become a Medical Assistant?
If you have long had a passion for establishing a career in the medical field or you simply just love caring for people and think a career in the field of healthcare may be a rewarding direction for you, training for a career in the medical field may be just what you’re looking for. Not only is the need for medical assistants growing, but it’s possible to enroll in a program, complete the coursework, earn on-the-job experience, and successfully acquire an entry-level career all within a year’s time.
How to Become a Medical Assistant?
State regulations vary, but in most states, you can become a medical assistant in two main ways:
- Train on the Job with a Doctors: In most states, those aspiring to become a medical assistant may train for the position with a doctor who is willing to take them under their wings in the clinic, hospital or other medical setting.
- Enroll in and Complete a Medical Assistant Program: As time and bandwidth can be difficult to come by in the healthcare world, most enter the medical assisting field by completing a medical assistant training program at an accredited school, such as FCC.
Reputable medical assistant programs, like the program offered at all FCC locations, often include a mix of classroom education, hands-on lab training, and on-the-job experience through externship opportunities. FCC students graduate from the program career-ready with the knowledge and skills they need to earn an entry-level medical assistant position.
How Long Does it Take to Become a Medical Assistant?
The length of time it takes to complete a medical assistant diploma program depends on the program in which you enroll. While medical assistant programs at vocational schools and career colleges (including FCC) can take just a few months, other programs – those at community colleges and universities, for example – may take longer.
At Florida Career College, our Medical Assistant Technician training program can be completed in as few as 10 months.
Become a Medical Assistant at Florida Career College
We at FCC offer our Medical Assistant Technician training program at all of our campuses. By offering a mix of online classroom instruction, hands-on lab training, and clinical experience through our externship program, students not only learn but become confident in the skills they need to excel as medical assistants in the real world.
Other advantages of choosing to enroll in FCC’s Medical Assistant Technician training program include:
- The ability to complete the program and earn a diploma in as few as 10 months
- Available curriculum established to match employers’ needs
- No high school diploma? You still have educational options
- Instructors have career experience in the medical field
- Program follows a hybrid model which allows for greater flexibility
- Programs provide hands-on training
- FCC externship programs offer real-world experience with potential employers
- Career Services department will help you find a position
- Financial aid is available to those who qualify
- We believe in giving people second chances in life
- Florida Career College cares and celebrates student success
For more information about FCC and our Medical Assistant Technician diploma program, simply contact our admissions team and an assigned representative will help determine your personal application needs. Everyone’s background is different, and it is our goal to help ensure qualified students are granted the opportunity to strive to their personal career goals.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. What does a medical assistant do?
Medical assistants work alongside physicians in private practices, outpatient clinics, hospitals, and other medical facilities for the benefit of patient services and care. As such, medical assistants are cross-trained to perform duties that are both administrative and clinical in nature.
2. Is a medical assistant the same as a physician assistant?
No. While the two positions sound as if they may be similar, they are actually very different in the scope of practice and level of care they can provide. Where medical assistants provide support services both clinically and administratively under the supervision of a medical provider, a physician assistant is able to perform many of the same functions as a doctor – tasks such as performing patient examinations, diagnosing illnesses, creating and managing treatment plans, prescribing medication, and so on.
3. What are the requirements to become a medical assistant?
Medical assistants must have earned their high school diplomas or equivalents, then complete a medical assistant training program from an accredited post-secondary school such as FCC. However, at FCC, students can earn their high school diploma concurrently while training to become a medical assistant.