The 2020 Guide to Online Physician Assistant (PA) Programs
Physician assistants (PAs) are crucial professionals in the modern U.S. healthcare system. PAs are not considered doctors (PAs are only required to have a master’s degree), but they are trained and licensed to carry out many of the same essential tasks including:
Diagnosing illnesses and injuries
Creating and implementing treatment plans
Counseling patients about care and treatment options
Pre- and postoperative care
As such, online physician assistant programs provide a pathway to becoming a valuable practitioner in the healthcare field without the time and cost associated with completing a medical degree (MD) and its much lengthier residency requirements.
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As an added benefit, becoming a PA offers an additional layer of career flexibility that is not as readily available to physicians. While the majority of PAs end up working in physicians’ offices, there is demand for their expertise in hospitals, outpatient facilities, urgent care facilities, virtual care centers (telehealth), educational settings, and psychiatric practices. Once licensed, PAs can transition between specialty areas in any of these environments often without any additional training.
The PA Program Online Experience
It is worth noting that becoming a physician assistant cannot happen entirely online. Both licensure and the required Master of Science Physician Assistant degree require substantial numbers of hours of hands-on, real-world practicum experience. This is in addition to any online coursework or required on-site classes.
However, completing a physician assistant program online is an opportune way to complete the required degree coursework in the times and places that work for you. Furthermore, when it comes to the clinical work, most schools will work with their online PA students to secure opportunities in convenient locations to avoid lengthy commutes.
Students can expect the online components of distance-learning PA programs to include:
A cloud-based digital hub for accessing and submitting course content
Multimedia-infused learning materials
Embedded communication and collaboration opportunities for student-professor, and student-student interaction
Access to academic advisors
Placement support to help secure local options for completing clinical rotation requirements
Tech support services to prevent and solve software and hardware issues
While the curriculum and clinical work can be time-consuming, it is possible to earn the required Master of Science Physician Assistant degree as a part-time student. That said, many schools discourage this practice due to the intensive nature of their programs. If you are looking to work part-time towards becoming a PA, be sure to thoroughly research whether or not a part-time option is feasible (or even available).
PA Program Online Admissions Requirements
Applying to an online physician assistant program can be a competitive proposition. While there is plenty of demand for PAs in the medical field, schools are reluctant to accept those who they do not feel will be equipped to complete their programs and go on to be exceptional professionals Due to the rigor of the PA curriculum, many schools are only looking for students that meet or exceed the following requirements:
Undergraduate coursework that includes common pre-med sciences like chemistry, biology, microbiology, anatomy, physiology (lab courses are always a plus).
An undergraduate GPA of 3.0 or higher, particularly in the sciences and pre-med disciplines
GRE scores in the top 50th percentile or higher
Previous healthcare experience is not always a requirement; however, the strongest candidates will have some degree of hands-on patient care experience before applying to an online PA program. Most schools that do require healthcare experience are looking for a minimum of 500 hours’ worth and will often accept work from a wide variety of occupations: EMTs, RNs, lab technicians, medical assistants, ER technicians, and Peace Corps volunteers to name a few.
Again, be sure to check the specific requirements and suggested experience guidelines before applying to any particular online PA program.
Online PA Program Curriculum
In many regards, a physician assistant’s educational experience is similar to that of a physician. Unlike medical doctors or nurses pursuing a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) program, PAs are trained in general medicine and are not expected to specialize in a particular area.
This is reflected in the diverse array of courses you can be expected to take as part of any PA online program:
Clinical laboratory science
In addition to the coursework, online PA student's are required to complete clinical rotations in the various focus areas of the profession. Thankfully, most schools will handle coordinating these on-site experiences on their students’ behalf – often in convenient local settings when possible.
The length and types of these rotations vary by program, but most include some combination of:
Various surgical specializations
Averaging a total of 2,000 total hours, these clinical experiences usually comprise the majority of the time spent completing a high-quality online PA program.
Finally, many Master of Science (M.S.) Physician Assistant degrees require a final project comprised of both literary and clinical research that must be of publishable quality. Some schools will require presentation and/or publication of the findings as a graduation requirement.
How to Become a Physician Assistant
The ideal path to becoming a PA starts with a high school and undergraduate career that includes a variety of general, lab, and behavioral science experiences. A good rule of thumb is to remember that the pre-med path is the same for both PAs and MDs; it is not until the graduate level that major distinctions exist.
Following completion of a bachelor’s degree, the next step to becoming a certified PA is the completion of an accredited Master of Science (M.S.) Physician Assistant degree program. Some schools offer a physician assistant Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree that can expedite the pursuit of this graduate degree, but most PAs complete their PA coursework as a standalone master’s degree program.
Both PAs and physicians possess the training and expertise to perform a wide array of healthcare services. Ultimately, there are some key differences between the two career paths. Most notably, a PA has a much shorter, less expensive path to licensure than a physician, but earns half of what a physician does. A physician has additional education requirements, occupational authority, and professional obligations that all amount to significantly higher compensation.
PA vs Doctor
Doctor / Physician
Key professional differences
-Can perform many of the same healthcare related tasks as a physician -Must work in collaboration with a physician -Flexibility to change specialty with little to no additional training or certification requirements -More predictable work schedules / less or no on-call hours
-Licensed to make and carry out medical decisions without authorization by other medical professionals -Difficult to change specialty without additional training and/or certifications -Long, often irregular hours / common to be on-call after hours Additional management, financial, and insurance obligations
1. 4-year Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor of Science (B.S.) 2. Master of Science (M.S.) Physician Assistant
1. 4-year Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor of Science (B.S.) 2. Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree
Average time to complete all graduate-level degree requirements
2-4 years (full-time including clinical rotations)
7-12 years (full-time including 4 years of medical school, and 3-8 years of residency)
Estimated required clinical hours
2,000+ clinical hours
6,000 clinical hours
10,000 residency hours
Average Annual Salary in 2018 (as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)
The U.S. continues to see increased demand for healthcare professionals. Physician assistants are in particularly high demand due to the wide variety of services they can provide, the speed at which they can be trained (especially compared to physicians), and as interest in affordable healthcare options continues to grow.
Enrolling in an online PA program is a great option for those looking to work directly with patients, maintain a high degree of professional flexibility, and join one of the most in-demand professions in the medical field.
Finding the Best Online PA Program For You
In searching for the best online physician assistant programs across the United States, it’s important to take into account the specific type of degree being offered, the clinical and credit hours the program requires of it's students, and any minimum GPA requirements that must be met for admission. Comparing PA online programs is the best way to choose a degree program that will work with your schedule and provide the best return on investment.
We’ve compiled a list of the online PA programs across the United States along with degree and program requirement information. An important component to any online healthcare degree program is their ability to provide top tier clinical placements as well as great online coursework. Comprehensive physician assistant online programs will include placements on high-level clincal facilities in order to best prepare you for your career. Explore each program thoroughly to find out which will be the best suited PA program online for you!
If you’re a practicing professional looking to transfer from one specialty area to another or if you’re a student who wants to learn more about the scope of physician assistant (PA) practice, the following articles offer information that can help you make an informed career decision.
Physician Assistant Job Outlook
Before choosing to become a physician assistant, you should have a solid understanding of the scope of practice. Knowing the average salary of a PA as well as projected job growth for the field may help you shape your decision.
Physician Assistant vs. Nurse Practitioner: What Are the Differences?
Physician assistants and nurse practitioners share many of the same duties and responsibilities, but there are some key differences between the two roles. Knowing those differences will help you determine which of these licensed roles might be the better fit for you.
What’s the Difference between a Physician Assistant and a Doctor?
Physician assistants work closely with doctors in a variety of settings and share patient responsibilities. While both of these licensed professionals have the necessary training and expertise to perform a wide array of clinical duties, there are ways to tell them apart.
The demand for physician assistants is expected to grow much faster than the average for all U.S. occupations. If you’re looking to become employed in a high-growth field, a physician assistant career might be for you.