Health care work environments are dynamic, fast-growing, and have passion-driven professionals ready to help and assist patients.
There are two career paths that sound similar to each other and are both based on working in collaboration with or under the supervision of physicians: medical assistants and physician assistants.
Before choosing a single path to pursue, it is important to compare, analyze and understand the duties, responsibilities, and educational requirements of both PAs and MAs.
We’ll use fact-proven and official resources from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to determine the main differences between a medical assistant vs. physician assistant.
Medical Assistant vs. Physician Assistant: Quick Summary
Physician assistants have a larger scope of practice and earn more compared to medical assistants, but require a higher level of education, such as a master's degree. In contrast, medical assistants require less schooling and primarily handle administrative and clinical tasks, working under or in collaboration with physicians.
Medical Assistant vs. Physician Assistant: Definition and Overview
A medical assistant is a healthcare professional who works under the direct supervision of physicians and other professionals in the healthcare industry.
Medical assistants perform both administrative and clinical tasks, and their job duties are completely based on the directions specified by physicians.
A physician assistant is a licensed healthcare professional who works collaboratively with physicians in many of the tasks performed by doctors in the medical field.
Physician assistants must complete meticulous education in order to perform patient care and clinical tasks, such as performing patient examinations, interpreting diagnostic tests, and more.
The typical entry-level education to become a physician assistant is a master’s degree, whereas most medical assistants just have to obtain a postsecondary nondegree award to start medical assisting.
Therefore, it is important to understand the educational and preparational requirements of both medical assistants and physician assistants to comprehend the differences between them.
Medical Assistant vs. Physician Assistant: Task and Responsibilities
According to the BLS, medical assistants are suited to complete administrative and clinical tasks based on the requirements of their work environment.
Overall, medical assistant responsibilities are more driven towards simple instructions by a medical doctor. This includes clinical duties such as recording patient history, treating patient’s injury, measuring vital signs, and other medical assisting tasks.
Nonetheless, clinical and administrative duties are also part of their job, such as scheduling patient appointments, bureaucratic labor inside a medical office, updating medical records, and more.
On the other hand, the job duties of physician assistants are less focused on administrative tasks, and they are required to perform medical practice alongside other healthcare professionals.
Physician assistants participate in clinical medicine tasks with physicians, surgeons, and other medical practitioners, and although physician assistant duties vary based on their work setting, they are usually very well-established.
Physician Assistant Responsibilities
Medical Assistant Duties
Review, analyze, and observe patient medical records.
Perform physical examination and tasks on patient services.
Interpret diagnostic tests and laboratory testing results.
Understand and analyze X-Ray results.
Perform physical diagnosis of injuries.
Provide treatment based on medical examinations.
Educate and counsel patients based on self-treatment processes.
Prescribe and administer medication.
Record and follow the patient care process.
Internal medicine tasks, depending on their work environment.
Emergency medicine procedures.
Record patient history and personal information.
Record patient vitals and blood pressure.
Prepare blood samples for lab tests.
Give patient injections depending on state laws.
Keep track of patient records and medical histories.
Be proficient in medical terminology.
Assist in medical office procedures (administrative).
Medical Assistant vs. Physician Assistant: Work Environment
According to the BLS, there were over 139,000 physician assistant jobs in 2021. There are five crucial pieces of information that help us understand the work environment of PAs:
More than half of physician assistants work in medical offices of physicians.
23 percent of physician assistants work in private, public, and state medical clinics and hospital facilities.
10 percent of physician assistants work in outpatient care centers.
Just 4 percent of PAs work in educational services, and 2 percent of PAs work in government facilities.
Most physician assistants work full-time in different shifts based on clinical rotations. They must be available during weekends, nights, and holidays if required by the employer.
BLS Statistics show that there were over 743,000 medical assistant jobs in 2021, more than five times that of physician assistants. These are the work environment factors that we should get to know:
58 percent of medical assistants work in offices of physicians.
15 percent of MAs work in private, public, or state hospitals.
9 percent of MAs work in outpatient care centers.
Only 4 percent of medical assistants work in the offices of chiropractors and other medical facilities.
Most medical assistants work full-time in standard 40-hour weekly shifts. Unlike PAs, most MAs are not required to always work during weekends, holidays, or nights.
Industries with the Highest Levels of Employment for Medical and Physician Assistants
As we can see here, physician vs. medical assistant responsibilities and work environments, although similar, also have their differences.
So, where can PAs and medical assistants work? These are the industries with the highest levels of employment for the medical assistant and physician assistant job/career path.
Industries with Highest Levels of Employment (Expressed in Total Employment Numbers)
Physician Assistant Responsibilities
Medical Assistant Duties
Offices of Physicians - 421,960.
General Medical and Surgical Hospitals - 106,640.
Outpatient Care Centers - 64,650.
Offices of Other Health Practitioners - 58,920.
Employment Services - 13,850.
Offices of Physicians - 70,000.
General Medical and Surgical Hospitals - 30,020.
Outpatient Care Centers - 13,450.
Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools - 4,130.
Offices of Other Health Practitioners - 1,610.
Physician Assistant vs. Medical Assistant: Skills
There’s a series of skills and important qualities that characterize medical assistants, such as the following:
Analytical and technical skills: a medical assistant need to understand medical charts and learn how to handle and manage basic clinical instruments.
Interpersonal skills: since most medical assistants work with patients, they must be able to discuss, interpret, and deliver patient information to physicians and other healthcare workers.
Attention to detail: during the analysis of a patient's vital signs, blood pressure, and record of patient’s history, it’s imperative for medical assistants to be detail-oriented in order to avoid possible mistakes.
Furthermore, the qualities and skills of physician assistants, although similar, are more focused on medical ethics and interpersonal qualities:
Compassion and communication skills: physician assistants must be able to explain complex medical issues with empathy and simplicity to both patients and physicians.
Emotional stability: most PAs are required to work under pressure in emergency medicine environments. This requires a level of emotional stability to endure the challenges and scenarios that might present.
Interpersonal skills: since 80 percent of PAs work in patient care / medical environments, it is necessary for them to learn how to communicate and deal with other individuals efficiently.
Attention to detail: physician assistants need to be analytical, observant, and accurate in order to perform procedures efficiently.
Problem-solving skills: complicated medical issues and unique medical field scenarios might appear in PA’s work settings - the professional must be diligent and capable of handling all possible outcomes.
Physician Assistant vs. Medical Assistant: Education
The educational and licensing requirements for PAs and MAs are highly different. While most states do not require medical assistants to be certified, physician assistants have to complete several years of education to be properly licensed.
Let’s take a look at the requirements, certifications, and paths to follow to become a medical assistant or physician assistant.
How to Become a Certified Medical Assistant
Most certified medical assistants graduate from postsecondary education programs. Medical assistant programs take around 1 to 2 years to complete, and although there are no formal requirements for MAs in most states, employers prefer to hire certified medical assistants.
Since there aren’t license requirements for MAs, most of them learn their skills through on-the-job and supervised clinical training.
Among the most popular and accredited medical assisting programs and certifications in the USA, we have the CMA from the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA), the NCMA from the National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT), and the CMAA from the National Healthcareer Association (NHA).
How to Become a Physician Assistant
Let’s start by recognizing the fact that all states require physician assistants to be licensed. In order to become a physician assistant, they need a bachelor’s degree to apply for a master’s degree from an accredited physician assistant program.
Having a bachelor’s degree in a healthcare-related field is the starting point to take further PA Programs, which usually last two years.
This means that, on average, an aspiring physician assistant need study for 6 years: 4 years to get a bachelor’s degree and 2 years to complete a master's accredited educational program.
In some states, laws require physician assistants to hold an agreement with a supervising physician. After graduating from a valid PA Program, PAs must take and complete the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (NCCPA) to be able to use the credential “Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C).”
The BLS also says that some PA positions may require basic life support (BLS) certification.
Medical Assistants vs. Physician Assistants: Salary
123,000 openings for medical assistants are projected each year over the course of a decade.
The employment of MAs will grow 16 percent from 2021 to 2031.
Employment numbers for medical assistants in 2033 are expected to reach 861,300, which represents an increase of 117,800 if compared to 2021’s employment (743,500).
Differences and Similarities Between Medical Assistants and Physician Assistants
Official sources, data, statistics, and information from reputable sources support the differences and similarities between medical assistants and physician assistants. Let’s take a look at 5 vital points that summarize this comparison guide:
Physician assistants are more prepared, educated, and capable than medical assistants.
Medical assistants can opt to work in both administrative and clinical settings, whereas physician assistants are more suited to work in clinical/medical work environments. Only 4 percent of PAs work in non-medical settings (mainly educational institutions).
On average, physician assistants make triple the money than medical assistants (average annual mean wages of $121,000 vs. $37,000, respectively).
There are more job openings for medical assistants (743,000+) than for physician assistants (139,000+).
Both professions require you to work under the supervision of a certified and licensed physician.
Can Physician Assistants and Medical Assistants Work Together?
Yes, medical assistants, physician assistants, and other healthcare workers can work together, mostly inside healthcare facilities. They can both help to treat patients by following the instructions and indications of a certified physician.
Can a Physician Assistant Turn Into a Physician?
A physician assistant could indeed turn into a physician. However, they would need to complete a medical degree program and residency training, which takes several years. Likewise, it will be necessary to achieve the licensing and certification requirements for this career path from a starting point.
Program outcomes may vary depending on each institution's specific curriculum and employment opportunities are not guranteed.