What’s the difference between a medical assistant and a physician assistant? It sounds like a joke awaiting a punchline, but given their similar titles, there is some genuine confusion as to the difference between an MA and a PA. Both provide assistance to doctors — whether it be primary care physicians or specialists — but beyond that, how do the two jobs differ? Read on to find out.
The primary distinguishing feature between a medical assistant and a physician assistant is that a PA actually practices medicine. Think of the position as a “doctor lite.” Physician assistants examine patients, order tests, diagnose conditions, treat illnesses and injuries and in most states can prescribe certain medicines. Although physician assistants enjoy a certain level of independence, they work under a doctor who oversees their activity.
Medical assistants, on the other hand, do not practice medicine. They perform less medically involved tasks in a doctor’s office than physician assistants. These may include clinical duties like taking vital signs, collecting specimens and sterilizing instruments; administrative duties like completing insurance forms, scheduling procedures and updating patient charts; and non-medical clerical duties like answering phones, filing and sorting mail.
However, the laws regarding what a physician assistant and a medical assistant may do vary by state, so it’s easy to see how there can be some confusion between the two professions. Sometimes the duties of PAs and MAs cross paths, particularly in states that allow MAs to perform more complex medical procedures, such as assisting in surgery, administering anesthesia and taking x-rays.
Most physician assistant education programs last for two years at the post-graduate level and award a master’s degree upon completion. Additionally, a physician assistant must be licensed by passing a certification exam. Most medical assistants, meanwhile, have high school diplomas, and MA programs typically last for a year or so, culminating in a diploma or certificate. However, some may last two years and offer an associate’s degree. MAs are not required to be certified, but certification can greatly increase their chances of being hired.
Medical assistant and physician assistant jobs are both growing very fast, but in part because medical assisting is an older, more established profession, the number of MA positions is significantly higher than that of physician assistants. In fact, there are more than six times as many MA jobs as there are PA jobs. Still, with the The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicting a 30% increase in the number of jobs for each position over the next decade, you can’t go wrong either way.