Medical Assistant vs. Physician Assistant: Which one to Choose?

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Have you ever wondered what the difference is between medical assistants and physician assistants? Well, there are many differences. The first thing to know is that physician assistants (PAs) work under physicians’ supervision, while medical assistants work in a variety of health care settings.

PA’s have more education than MA’s because they have at least two years of college plus an additional year or more of study in their primary field after graduating from an accredited program. This means that PAs can diagnose patients who come into the office for help with ailments such as skin rashes, sore throats, earaches, or other common illnesses.

Medical Assistant vs. Physician Assistant: Duties

So, what exactly do medical assistants and physician assistants do?

Medical Assistant Responsibilities:

They are an important member of the healthcare team and play a vital role in providing quality care to patients. MA’s duties can vary depending on the work setting but often include tasks such as –

  • Taking vital signs
  • Preparing patients for exams
  • Drawing blood or administering injections.
  • They may also sterilize medical equipment, prepare and dispense medications and provide other basic care.
  • Some MA’s may also be responsible for billing and insurance paperwork, as well as managing medical records.
  • In smaller clinics or doctor’s offices, the MA may also be the receptionist.

Physician Assistant Responsibilities:

On the other hand, PAs have a much wider range of duties. PA work can be extremely varied, depending on their area of focus. In addition to the tasks that medical assistants perform, they may also –

  • Diagnose and treat illnesses.
  • Order and interpret lab tests.
  • Prescribe medications and counsel patients.
  • They may also work in surgery or other specialty areas.
  • Some PAs may only see patients a few times a week, while others may regularly be in the operating room.

Medical Assistant vs. Physician Assistant: Education

As mentioned above, physician assistants have a broader range of responsibilities and more medical training than most medical assistants. Most PAs receive both their bachelor’s degree in a health care field such as biology or chemistry and also complete a one-year master’s program to learn the clinical skills they need for their work. Many states require them to pass an exam in order to be licensed.

Medical assistants, on the other hand, typically have a two-year associate’s degree from an accredited program in medical assisting. Some programs offer a certificate or diploma instead of a degree. While not all states require certification for medical assistants, it is becoming more common and can make finding jobs more manageable.

Common Course Curriculum

Most medical assistant and physician assistant programs share a common core of classes. However, the specific subjects covered in those courses can vary from school to school. Here is a general overview of some of the topics you might study as a medical assistant or physician assistant student:

  • Anatomy and physiology: The structure and function of the body’s organs and tissues
  • Biology: The study of life processes
  • Chemistry: The study of the composition, structure, and properties of matter
  • Medical terminology: The language used by healthcare professionals
  • Pharmacology: The study of medications and their effects on the body
  • Pathology: The study of disease processes
  • Clinical procedures: The basic techniques used in healthcare settings
  • Patient care: The skills necessary to provide effective patient care
  • Physical examination and diagnostic techniques
  • Medical law, ethics, and communication skills
  • Anatomy/physiology of the eye; ear, nose & throat; skin; head & neck; body fluids (blood-based body fluids, specifically); and respiratory system
  • Microbiology/immunology; bloodborne pathogens (infectious diseases)
  • Instruments used in the medical office setting. These include sterilizers, autoclaves, needles & syringes, sphygmogram, etc.

Most medical assistant and physician assistant programs also offer specialized courses in areas such as cardiology, oncology, or pediatrics. Students may also have the opportunity to participate in clinical rotations, where they can gain hands-on experience in a healthcare setting.

Health Setting – Commons & Differences

Medical assistants work in a wide variety of health care settings, from hospitals and clinics to nursing homes. Physician assistants typically have more limited employment options since they need practice partners who are willing to supervise them closely. Many PAs get their first jobs with physicians whose practices include all types of medical specialties so that they can gain experience before specializing in a particular area.

Different Certifications

Finally, medical assistants and physician assistants may have different levels of certification. Most medical assistants are not certified, but some states require them to be. The most common certification for medical assistants is the Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) credential from the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA). Other certifications such as RMA (Registered Medical Assistant) are available, but they aren’t as widely recognized.

In contrast, physician assistants are more likely to be certified. The most common certification is the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA).The NCCPA offers four credentials: Certified Physician Assistant (CPA), Advanced-Certified Physician Assistant (ACP), Master Physician Assistant (MPA), and Physician Assistant-Certified (PAC). Of these, CPA is the most commonly held certification.

Most medical assistant or physician assistant positions require at least a high school diploma and on-the-job training to get started. Individuals interested in becoming medical assistants should check with their state’s board of medicine for specific certification requirements.

MA and PA: Salary Difference

The salaries of medical assistants and physician assistants also vary widely.

MAs generally earn less than PAs, with the median annual salary around $38,000. The highest-paid MAs may make more than $48,000 a year, while the lowest-paid earned less than $30,000.

Physician assistants, instead, earn a median salary of about $121,530 a year. The highest-paid PAs make more than $164,000 annually, while the lowest-paid earn around $78,000.

Medical Assistant vs. Physician Assistant: Employment & Demand

In 2021, there were about 743,500 medical assistants employed in the United States, while there were only about 139,100 PAs.

The demand for PAs is snowballing, while the demand for medical assistants is expected to grow more slowly. Between 2021 and 2031, the number of jobs for PAs is projected to increase by 28%, compared to just 16% for medical assistants.

This means that PAs are likely to have better employment opportunities in the future.

Conclusion: Which one to Go For?

The two types of assistants have many similarities, but physician assistants are more likely to work in medical specialties since they need practice partners who can supervise them closely.

Both may perform tasks such as taking vital signs and administering medications, while PAs can also diagnose illnesses and order tests.

If you are interested in a career that involves working with patients and have some medical training, then becoming a physician assistant may be the right choice for you. However, if you want more variety in your work and do not need to perform as many clinical tasks, then becoming a medical assistant may be better suited for you.

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Written by : Casey Gardner

Casey Gardner is both a healthcare support professional and an accomplished content creator.  She has been working as a certified health care professional with marketable skills as a physician assistant,  and a qualified medical assistant for last two decades. She has dedicated her nursing career to produce over hundreds of content pieces since 2001, and her work has been published both online as well as offline.


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