Complete Guide to Online Physician Assistant Programs

By OnlineU Staff | Updated February 26, 2020

The physician assistant profession is one of the fastest-growing careers in America. With the aging baby boomer population creating a need for more practitioners and the Affordable Care Act bringing access to more people, there are enticing opportunities for career growth in this specialty. Physician assistants practice medicine and assist doctors and surgeons in the healthcare of individuals. Online physician assistant programs prepare students for a variety of roles in a clinical, administrative, and diagnostic capacity. Many physician assistants work in private physicians' offices, while other physician assistants work at hospitals and outpatient care centers.

To earn a PA license, many states require that candidates graduate from an accredited school, which will prepare them to sit for the Physician Assisting National Certifying Exam, which is required to if you want to become a certified PA. The accrediting agency for PA programs in the United States is the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA).

Comprehensive List of Accredited Online Schools - Physician Assistant Degrees

Online Physician Assistant Degree Overview & Career Information

Physician assistants perform a wide range of duties in assisting physicians and surgeons in the examination, diagnosis, and treatment of patients. This includes conducting physical exams, reviewing medical histories, ordering and analyzing lab tests, discussing medical issues with patients and their families, providing direct treatment, completing insurance paperwork, and prescribing medicine. Physician assistants work in many different specializations of medicine, such as pediatrics, family medicine, psychiatry, and emergency care.

Accredited online physician assistant programs are available at the bachelor's, master's, doctoral and certificate levels. The average physician assistant program takes three years to complete and will require on-site training in a hospital, clinic, or other healthcare facility. When choosing a program to enroll in, you should account for factors such as cost, location, and reputation and quality of physician assistant degree programs. Also, be sure to check each school's list of admissions requirements; most programs require that applicants complete science prerequisites with a satisfactory grade and have experience working in a healthcare environment.

Physician assistant programs often include a mixture of lecture courses in health-related areas, plus hands-on laboratory instruction and clinical rotations. Students must take the expected human physiology-related subjects like biology, biochemistry, and human anatomy. They also take classes in areas that are more focused on medical practice and diagnosis, such as clinical medicine, pharmacology, medical ethics, ambulatory care, and physical diagnosis. Students who graduate from these programs are qualified to sit for the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination.

Online Bachelor's Degrees in Physician Assistant

There are not many bachelor's programs specifically in physician assistant studies. More common is a BS intended as a gateway into a Master of Physician Assistant program. Programs designed to lead into an MS Physician Assistant Studies have a variety of titles such as Bachelor of Public Health or Bachelor of Health Science. They can lead to other roles in the health industry. After earning a A BS in Physician Assistant Studies or in Health Science, students may go on to work as radiology assistants, lab technicians, or physical therapy assistants, among other jobs. These programs are offered by a wide range of schools, from small private liberal arts colleges to large public universities.

The bachelor's curriculum for Physician Assistant Studies will emphasize foundational classes in anatomy, physiology, biology and chemistry, and build on these to more advanced lab studies. Written and oral communication is also very important, because PAs must be adept at communicating with patients, in roles such as recording medical histories. Admission into the program will require graduation from an accredited secondary school, transcripts, and one or more letters of recommendation. Courses in the lab sciences such as chemistry and biology will strengthen an application. Depending on the program, it may take two or three years of a student's classes. Recently, new programs have been developed that combine a BS/MS in a 3/2 program that takes 5 years, and results in both a BS and an MS.

Online Master's Degrees in Physician Assistant

Master's degrees are the most commonly held degree by physician assistants. Master's degree programs for this discipline usually mandate two years of full-time study, although some programs require three years of full-time study. In order to be admitted to a physician assistant master's program, a candidate must graduate from an accredited undergraduate institution, preferably with a bachelor's degree that is somehow related to the practice of medicine. View a list of the best online physician assistant master's degrees.

Online Doctoral Degrees in Physician Assistant

Students who are interested in helping others and working in an active environment should consider the doctoral degree in physician assistant. Doctoral programs usually require 24 credits in order to graduate and students generally complete these programs in 5 semesters. Courses might include Healthcare Research Methods, Question Development and Search for Evidence, and an Appraisal of the Evidence course. To be admitted to one of these programs, applicants must have a master of physician assistant studies, proof of state licensure, and a current certification from the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants. A physician assistant doctoral degree allows graduates to work in hospitals and in the healthcare industry as a professional physician assistant. 

Online Certificates in Physician Assistant

Physician assistants and those working in related fields can pursue additional education through an online physician assistant certificate program. Physician assistants (PAs) and healthcare employees work in hospitals, outpatient clinics, physician offices, and educational settings. Physician assistants work under the supervision of a physician, and their training is applicable across the medical industry. An online certificate program allows students to hone their skills in specific areas, preparing them for increased responsibilities and advanced career opportunities.

Coursework in an online physician assistant certificate program typically focuses on a specialization, such as leadership in healthcare, clinical medicine, clinical pharmacology, or diagnostic imaging. Admission criteria will vary by program but typically includes a degree requirement and letters of recommendation. Some programs may also require candidates to be working in the field or have prior healthcare experience. An online physician assistant certificate program will often include coursework as well as in-class case studies and research. A practicum position is also sometimes available for further hands-on experience.

Online physician assistant certificate programs typically last nine months to a year. Because of the interdepartmental nature of this field, program faculty may come from various backgrounds, including business, finance, education, and biomedical science. Certificate holders will be able to pursue advanced positions in the field due to the networking opportunities and specialized focus gained through the program.

Accreditation and Licensing Requirements for Physician Assistants

Professional certification is a critical aspect of becoming a physician assistant. This designation is offered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). In addition to the requirement that students graduate from an accredited physician assistant education program, NCCPA also requires candidates to pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE). Physician assistant programs are accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). Most accredited programs are master's-level programs, but a few associate and bachelor's degree programs are accredited, as well.

Once both of these requirements have been fulfilled, students have attained the 'Physician Assistant-Certified' designation. In order to maintain their title, PA-Cs must complete 100 hours of continuing education every two years and apply for recertification every 10 years. Students have the choice of taking either a recertification exam or combining on-site learning experiences with a take-home test.

Every state requires physician assistants to become licensed in order to practice medicine. Apart from passing the PANCE, different states may have different requirements, so students should check with the licensing board of the state they would like to practice in. In some instances, it may be possible for candidates to earn licenses that can be transferred between different states; but again, it is best to verify each state's set of policies regarding this.

Frequently Asked Questions About Physician Assistant Programs

What's the difference between a physician's assistant and a nurse practitioner?

In some ways, the roles of nurse practitioner and physician's assistant are similar. Professionals in these roles must hold master's degrees and be licensed to practice, and they will earn comparable salaries. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also projects a dramatic increase in demand for professionals with either of these credentials. In practice, however, the roles are quite different. Nurse practitioners come from the nursing tradition, so they may take a more holistic approach to long-term care and wellness. Physician's assistants come from the medical model, so they are more focused on diagnosing and treating ailments and injuries.

How much can I earn as a physician's assistant?

As of May 2019, the Bureau of Labor Statistics stated that the salary range for physician's assistants was $72,720 to $157,120, with a median annual income of $112,260. The most lucrative positions are usually found in outpatient care centers. This is a particularly good time to pursue an online degree as a physician's assistant, as the demand for trained and licensed professionals is expected to grow by 31% over the next decade.

How can I fulfill the clinical rotation requirement for a physician's assistant program if I'm going to school online?

All physician's assistant degree programs—whether at the bachelor's or master's degree level—require students to complete a minimum number of hours of real-world experience as part of the curriculum, known as "clinical rotations." The purpose of clinical rotations is to give students valuable experience in assessing, diagnosing, and treating patients. When students are completing their degrees online, they may have to work with their advisor or another faculty member to make arrangements to complete this requirement at a legitimate healthcare facility that is convenient for the student. Students will need to work under the supervision of licensed professionals at the chosen facilities.

References

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