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PA vs MD: Which Medical Career Should You Pursue?

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In this post, I will give all necessary information on the differences between PA vs MD to help you decide on which medical career to pursue.

Both PAs and MDs work almost similarly concerning the way they take care of their patients. Later on, you’ll get to know what sets PA apart from MD in terms of roles, salaries, lifestyle, knowledge, and education.

What Does a Physician Assistant Do?

pa vs md what does a physician assistant do

Here is a quick overview of a PA’s roles:

  • Assess patients through history taking and physical examination
  • Order and interpret diagnostic tests
  • Diagnose a patient’s injury or illness
  • Prescribe medications and treatment
  • Educate and counsel patients and their families
  • Evaluate and record patients’ progress
  • Conduct medical research on the latest treatments to improve the quality of patient care delivery
  • Facilitate outreach programs and host groups about managing diseases and promoting wellness

How To Become a Physician Assistant

pa vs md how to become a physician assistant

Here are the steps on how to become a PA:

1. 4-Year Undergraduate Degree

Regardless of whether it’s PA vs MD, the first step before you take a leap to a graduate course is to complete a bachelor’s degree. Prospective PAs choose science courses for practical reasons. Science courses curriculum overlap to the actual PA curriculum, thus a good and early preparation for the 2-year program itself. You may check my article on the best pre-med majors. It might give you an idea of what to take. 

Here are the pre-requisite courses you may choose:

  • General Chemistry I with lab
  • General Chemistry II with lab
  • Organic Chemistry with lab
  • Human Anatomy or Anatomy and Physiology I
  • Human Physiology or Anatomy & Physiology II
  • General Biology with lab
  • Biochemistry
  • Microbiology with lab
  • College Algebra or Statistics
  • Psychology
  • Developmental Psychology
  • Anthropology or Sociology
  • Medical Terminology

2. Physician Assistant Program

Make sure that the PA Program is accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA)List of accredited programs.

It takes 2-3 years to completeAdmission requirements vary per program, but most ARC-PA accredited programs seek at least a GPA of 2.75 to 3.0.

The program’s subjects resemble those in medical school but are only more compressed. You’ll get to study anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, pathology, emergency medicine, health care industry, etc.

You’ll both have medical science lectures and clinical experience in your PA Program. In the second year, you’ll be involved in more complex topics such as general surgery, gynecology, and behavioral medicine. 

Other admission requirements will include some or all of the following:

  • Patient care experience gained via work or volunteer time as a CNA, EMT, CMA, medical technician, or in hospice care
  • Shadowing of a physician assistant
  • Community service
  • GRE scores
  • Admission essay
  • In-person interview
  • Letter(s) of recommendation from previous instructors or medical professionals
  • Previous experience in the medical profession
  • Basic life support certification
  • Background check
  • Drug screening

Physician Assistant Vs Medical Doctor: Boiling Down Their Differences

Now, let’s take a look into their major differences in all aspects such as lifestyle, knowledge, and compensation.

PA vs MD Lifestyle

PAs have a more consistent 40-hour weekday working schedule than MDs. They have a variety of works. They usually apply a patient-centered approach in which they provide individualized care and treatment based on a comprehensive assessment of different aspects, both physically and psychosocially.

Often than not, their schedules are fixed. Hence, they could allot more time to do other activities during the weekend. This is why PAs tend to have high job satisfaction and stability rates as they could balance work and leisure efficiently. 

Meanwhile, MDs operate their own clinics, at the same time doing hospital rounds, conducting surgeries, and doing on-call services. Their work is pretty much more varied and dynamic. Given this, MDs work beyond the 40-hour schedule. They even work at least 60 hours per week to perform all these tasks. 

Job satisfaction varies per specialization with family physicians showing the highest rates. The highest rates of burnout are among emergency medicine and internal medicine.

MDs are more likely to experience burnout and dissatisfaction due to their hefty schedule. They don’t have the luxury of time to spend day-offs for their leisure activities, unlike the PAs.

PA vs MD Knowledge

pa vs md knowledge

The curricula of PA and MD are more or less similar. You would also learn basic medical foundations such as (anatomy and physiology, biochemistry, pharmacology) up to complex topics such as (anesthesiology, general surgery, etc).

They have pretty much the same knowledge. The only difference is the pace. Pacing in the PA program is quicker than MDs. Doctors, meanwhile, have longer and more intensive training for 4 years. 

PA vs MD Salary

physician assistant salary

Let me give you the difference between the annual compensation of PAs and MDs per corresponding specialization.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, here are the MD specializations with the highest annual wages:

MD Specialization Amount
Anesthesiologist $261,730
Surgeons $252,040
Obstetricians and Gynecologists $233,610
Psychiatrists $220,430
Family and General Practitioners $213,270
Physicians and surgeons, all other $203,450
General Internists $201,440
General Pediatricians $184,410

Table 1. MD Specializations With The Highest Annual Salaries

MDs are one of the professions with the highest gross wages with a median wage of approximately $208,000 annually. This is because of the variety and dynamic tasks they try to squeeze in for a week.

You can know more about how much doctors earn in general and by their respective specialties here!

On the other hand, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, here are the PA specialization with the highest annual wages:

PA Specialization Amount
Outpatient Care Centers $119,090
Hospitals: state, local, and private $115,190
Employment services $114,220
Offices of physicians $110,670
Educations services; state, local, and private $109,080

Table 2. PA Specializations With The Highest Annual Salaries

At a glance, MDs tend to have higher wages than PAs by about a hundred percent. Their median annual wage in 2019 was $112,260.

What Is The Highest-Paid Physician Assistant Specialty?

Based on statistics, PAs who work at out-patient care centers have the highest compensation. In this setting, they are exposed to a larger number of patients who seek consultation since this is the nearest health facility to go to. 

Is PA School Easier Than Med School?

As I mentioned earlier, the curricula for both PA and MD are the same. They share the same difficult classes and exams, so they’ll technically have the same knowledge. 

What just sets them apart is the volume and pace. Since PA is expected to be completed within 2-3 years, the pacing is quite fast while medical school, since its longer, have a longer and more intensive discussion. 

I think you really cannot tell that one is easier than the other since it still depends. If you don’t thrive at fast-paced learning, you might find PA school harder. Not because it’s the length of completion is shorter, doesn’t mean it’s easier.

Also, PAs are not required to take and pass Step 1, unlike MDs. MDs are required to take a lot of exams which becomes one consideration to tell that med school is harder.

The verdict is highly subjective. 

Frequently Asked Questions About PA Vs MD 

Can You Go From a PA To An MD?

Certainly.

Though this is not the traditional path, it is still possible. You may even have advantages over your competitors since you already have a solid background in different medical concepts. However, you need to spend another 4 years of training in medical school to be eligible for licensure.

Here are quick steps how:

1. Make sure you’re fully decided to take a great leap.

Weigh the pros and cons of being a PA vs MD such as finances, additional workload, and years of study. If you think that you’ll be benefiting more in MD and it’s on par with your passion, then you could most certainly proceed.

2. Complete Unmet Requirements

There are course prerequisites in medical schools required for admission. Since you’re already a PA, PA school course prerequisites are often the same in medical school. Fulfill other admission requirements such as MCAT. Submit all requirements once through.

3. Ace Interviews

Competition is tough as there are thousands of students aspiring to be a doctor. Prepare for this step well and give a lasting impression to the admissions committee. 

4. Obtain Your Medical Degree

Fulfill the 4-year course and start taking the USMLE. Here are tips and tricks on how to study for Step 1

5. Complete Residency and Licensing Requirements

After med school, you should file your residency application and undergo again interviews and residency programs matching. You are also expected to finish the remaining USMLE Steps and the board certification exam. 

6. Congrats, You’re An MD Now!

 

Why Become a PA Over a Doctor?

There are a lot of reasons why pursuing PA school is better than med school. Here are some reasons why:

1. PAs Have Shorter Study Duration

A doctor spent approximately more than nine years of schooling before they can obtain a license to practice. Whereas PAs take only 2-3 years. Still, don’t get me wrong because PA is not that easy. 

PAs could already be licensed after accomplishing a 25-month accredited PA program and a 1-year clinical rotation that involves a wide range of specializations such as emergency medicine and pediatrics. Technically, just the same as what the MDs were exposed to. 

2. PAs Have High Compensations

Though MDs have twice as higher wages than the PAs, PAs are compensated fairly. As I showed earlier, 2019 median pay for PAs is $112,260. Not bad, right?

3. PAs Have More Flexible Roles

Unlike doctors who cannot shift from one specialization to another anytime they want to, licensed PAs can work on any medical specialty they like. No need for extra years of study unlike in MDs. PAs can readily switch from one specialization to another as desired.

4. PAs Enjoy Work-Life Balance

Unlike an MD who juggles from one task to another and working beyond 60 hours a week, PAs work shorter and on fixed hours. This regular schedule is an advantage as it provides them some time to detox. They can work only on their required shift without carrying extra load at home. They can spend fixed day-offs for their leisure activities. 

5. PAs Are In Demand Job Prospects

PAs are just as significant as MDs. They don’t struggle with finding work. Many clinics prefer hiring PAs instead of doctors to save more budget. They are also asked to attend noncritical cases on behalf of the physician on-leave. It is estimated by the BLS, that PAs are projected to grow to 37% in 2026 – faster than other occupations – due to the increasing demand in health care. 

 

Why Is MD Better Than PA? 

Of course, there are also advantages when you pursue an MD career over PA. Here are some reasons why:

1. MDs Have More Autonomy

Though MDs and PAs have shared almost the same knowledge, MDs have the autonomous practice the PAs lack. They don’t need supervision. MDs practice independently from prescribing medications to performing surgeries. Also, MDs can run their own clinics – they are in control of their businesses, thus generates more income. 

2. MDs Have More Varied And Dynamic Roles

Medical doctors juggle one task to another. They could be a clinician who runs his own business by day and do hospital rounds at night. They could also cater to on-call responsibilities in between. They are called to handle complex cases, perform surgeries, and treat non-common illnesses.

3. MDs have Higher Compensation

This is one of the major differences. Their salaries are twice as higher than PAs. Because of their varied tasks, they technically earn more. 

 

Do You Call a PA a Doctor?

PAs do not go to medical school and do not take the US Medical Licensing Exam. Therefore, they are not licensed doctors, they shouldn’t be called doctors. Addressing them as “Mr.” or “Ms./Mrs.” would be correct.

It’s a simple courtesy and respect to address people’s rights. MDs have invested enormous time, money, and effort to arrive at where they currently are. Calling PAs a doctor is discrediting the hard work that MDs have done. 

Can An MD Become a PA?

Unlike pursuing the path from a PA to MD, becoming an MD to PA is quite not advisable for some.

Though there are licensed doctors who have been enjoying the variety of their roles and the corresponding high wages, there are still some who would like to downgrade their loads. They want to enjoy the fixed working hours of PAs yet at the same time earn decent wages. 

However, this is not recommended if you have a huge loan balance to pay for. The salary of PAs may not be enough to be free from your medical school debt. Otherwise, if you have the financial capacity to manage these debts and you think you will be happier as a PA, then don’t hold bars. 

However, it won’t be easy. To get a PA license, you should finish PA school. It doesn’t mean that if you’re already a doctor, your courses taken will be automatically credited to get a PA license. There are schools such as the University of Iowa that give credit to their MD alumni for PA school. 

Also, take note that not all states give a PA license to anyone who graduated from med school. Check this carefully first before spending another 2-3 years for nothing. Think before giving up the privileges of your MD license. 

If you wanted this path to escape from MD burnout, I’m sure there are still plenty of MD opportunities in which you could work part-time with a flexible schedule.

So, it’s time for the verdict. PA vs MD: which is better?

Either. 

It’s a case-to-case basis. It all depends on your passion and interests. If you feel like establishing your own clinic, then you might want to pursue MD. On the other hand, if you think you’re good at providing individualized patient care on regular schedules only, proceed with PA. 

Your decision depends on you. And whatever it is, I’m sure that you’ll be good at it.

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