Medical Assistants & Physician Assistants: What’s the Difference?


Though similarly named, the Medical Assistant and Physician Assistant fields are actually very different. To help clarify what each of these careers entail, it is important to understand the specific roles and duties performed by professionals in each field.

Physician Assistants

Physician Assistants, or PAs, are given specific duties to perform from their supervising physicians or surgeons. Many duties that PAs perform on a regular basis include providing diagnostic, therapeutic, and preventative healthcare to patients; examining patients; treating minor injuries; prescribing medications; counseling patients; and helping to promote overall wellness. PAs are also responsible for administrative duties like taking medical histories, ordering and interpreting lab tests and X-rays, and helping to determine diagnoses.

Many Physician Assistants work in primary care specialties like family medicine, emergency medicine, pediatrics, general surgery, internal medicine, orthopedics, or geriatrics. It is crucial for PAs to be quick to react to emergency situations, have a strong desire to serve the patient, and have a good bedside manner.

Medical Assistants

Medical Assistants, on the other hand, primarily perform clinical tasks and administrative duties for physicians, podiatrists, chiropractors, and other healthcare practitioners. Depending on the office and specialty of the practitioner, Medical Assistant duties can vary greatly. Administrative duties often include keeping patient records accurate and up to date, arranging for hospital visits and lab services, handling insurance information, and other clerical responsibilities.

More hands-on duties that Medical Assistants are often expected to perform include preparing patients for examinations, explaining treatment procedures to patients, performing basic tests, taking medical histories, and sterilizing medical equipment. Medical Assistants are critical to the healthcare system – they are the face of the office and they help to keep the practice running smoothly and efficiently.

Education Requirements

Much like their roles and responsibilities, the educational requirements of the Medical Assistant and the Physician Assistant career paths differ greatly. To become a Physician Assistant, an accredited educational program must be completed. PA programs usually take at least two years of full-time study to complete and typically lead to a master’s degree. Upon graduation from the program, Physician Assistants are required to obtain licensure in the state in which they wish to practice. Physician Assistants are also required to maintain their licensure by recertifying every six years. For those wishing to become Medical Assistants, the educational requirements are not as rigorous. Many states require nothing more than a high school diploma. However, aspiring MAs are encouraged to participate in a Medical Assisting program in order to learn critical skills and knowledge, and receive hands-on training prior to entering the field.

To learn more about pursuing a career as a Medical Assistant, contact Arizona College at 602-222-9300.

Information in this blog post is accurate as of August 29, 2012.