If you’re thinking about pursuing a healthcare profession, you may be considering becoming a medical assistant or physician assistant. While these sound like they should be very similar, they are actually quite different.
A medical assistant is a healthcare worker who helps a doctor with tasks such as basic assessments and bedside procedures. They perform all of their work with direct supervision from a physician and usually work in clinics or doctors office.
A physician assistant is a medical provider who can diagnose and treat illnesses. They work in almost any healthcare setting including in hospitals assisting with surgeries and working in critical care departments. Some states allow them to prescribe medications without the approval of a physician and are similar to a doctor in many ways.
It requires much more education to become a physician assistant—including a bachelor’s degree and physician assistant program. Medical assistants, on the other hand, just require a high school diploma or GED and, sometimes, a certificate program that takes less than a year to complete.
This guide goes over key differences between medical assistants and physician assistants to help you decide which is the right career for you.
Medical Assistant vs Physician Assistants Overview
Though both are medical professions, there are key differences and similarities between the two.
Medical assisting is more of an entry-level medical position. Medical assistants help with basic and non-invasive tasks such as taking vital signs and preparing rooms for patients. Becoming a medical assistant does not require an advanced degree and it's a common job for people to do before PA school to gain clinical experience.
Physicians Assistants are advanced-care providers that can perform more complex procedures, make diagnoses, and create treatment plans for patients. Becoming a physician assistant requires years of training and clinical hours, and they have a broad scope of practice.
Medical Assistant Overview
Medical assistants—sometimes referred to as medical assistant technicians—typically work in doctors offices and clinics. Their work includes both clinical tasks like taking vital signs and removing stitches, and administrative tasks like scheduling appointments. Medical assistants typically work 40-hour weeks in either five, eight-hour shifts or three, 12-hour shifts.
Medical assistants skills and responsibilities include:
- Scheduling appointments
- Sending billing reminders
- Keeping the office organized
- Drawing blood
- Collecting urine samples
- Preparing rooms for patients
- Coordinating with insurance companies
- Taking vital signs
- Assisting with bedside procedures
- Simple wound dressings
To become a certified medical assistant, you can take a certification course online, through an in-person certification program, or an associate degree program. After completing whichever course you choose, you’ll take a certification exam.
Physician Assistants Overview
A physician assistant is similar to a physician in many ways. They care for patients in all types of healthcare settings, including everything from family practice offices to cardiac surgery.
They can diagnose diseases and prescribe medicines, and can consult with the physician if they have questions or have a particularly complex case. Medical assistants can help physician assistants in the same way they help doctors.
Physician assistant responsibilities include:
- Diagnosing illness
- Prescribing medications
- Placing stitches
- Assisting in surgery
- Ordering lab tests
- Ordering diagnostic tests
- Interpreting lab and diagnostic tests
- Educating patients about their diseases
A physician assistant has to graduate with at least a master's degree from an accredited program and pass a licensure exam. Most people spend about six years in school to become a PA, including a bachelor’s degree.
Most physician assistants work in private practice offices and hospitals. They usually work during the daytime hours with on-call requirements for nights and weekends.
Key Similarities Between Medical Assistants & Physician Assistants
Although they are different, MA’s and PA’s do have some similarities. Working in the healthcare industry means that they will share some responsibilities, including:
- Caring for patients. Both occupations are responsible for caring for patients and keeping them safe. Both medical assistants and physician assistants must pay attention to the physical and emotional needs of their patients.
- Staying calm in an emergency. All medical providers need to stay calm during emergencies. Everyone in healthcare should be certified in CPR.
- Understanding proper disease control. Since both professions both work with potentially sick and infectious patients, physician assistants and medical assistants must be vigilant in preventing the spread of illness between patients or getting themselves sick.
- Working with physician supervision. Although physician assistants have a larger scope of practice and can work more independently than medical assistants, they do both work under the supervision of a physician.
Key Differences Between Medical Assistants & Physician Assistants
It is easy to assume that medical assistants and physician assistants have similar job responsibilities. However, there are some major differences between the two, including:
- Salary. Perhaps one of the most obvious differences between medical and physician assistants is the pay. Physician Assistants earn more than three times as much as medical assistants.
- Educational requirements. While medical assistants can start working after obtaining their GED or graduating high school, physician assistants must earn a masters degree and pass a licensing exam before beginning their career.
- Scope of practice. The scope of practice for a medical assistant is limited to non-invasive tasks and recording data. Physician assistants can interpret the recorded data to make a diagnosis and create a treatment plan for the patient. Physician assistants can also perform many invasive procedures like intubation. Medical assistants can't prescribe medications and do other things that physician assistants regularly do.
Medical Assistant & Physician Assistants Salary & Job Growth Comparison
Medical assistants and physician assistants have good job opportunities with a high projected growth rate. Their pay is considerably different.
Projected job growth through 2031 is 16% for medical assistants and 24% for physician assistants. These growth rates are both significantly higher than the national average for other jobs in the United States.
Many people choose to start their medical career as a medical assistant. Often, people work as medical assistants while pursuing a more advanced degree, or they eventually become leaders or instructors for other medical assistants.
Physician assistants can also become leaders in their field, but if they want to advance their career to become a physician or educator, they would have to complete several years of additional schooling or start almost all the way over.
Medical Assistant vs Physician Assistant Salary by State
Education & Certification Requirements for Medical Assistants & Physician Assistants
Education requirements for medical assistants are very different from requirements for physician assistants.
If you want to become a medical assistant, you can start applying for jobs right after high school graduation. Many offices and clinics will hire medical assistants with no special training or experience.
However, your job opportunities will increase if you become a certified medical assistant. Becoming certified means you have completed an accredited program and passed a certification exam. Medical assistant programs take anywhere from four months to two years.
A physician assistant must have a masters degree and pass a licensing examination. This usually takes about six years of full time schooling, including four years of pursuing a bachelor’s degree. They must have advanced knowledge of anatomy, physiology, pathophysiology, and pharmacology.
Many medical assistants will go on to become physician assistants. Depending on if the MA already has a bachelor's degree or not, this can take anywhere from 2 years (if they already have one) to 6 years (if they do not).
Comparing a Day in the Life for Medical Assistants & Physician Assistants
A day in the life of medical assistants and physician assistants are both filled with caring for patients, but in different ways.
A medical assistant will probably start their day around 7 or 8 in the morning, checking the schedule for the day and sending reminders to patients. Then they will spend their day switching between clinical and administrative tasks, helping the physicians keep things organized and running smoothly.
A physician assistant may start in the morning or evening, depending on the shift they choose to work. They might spend their first few hours reviewing patient charts and care plans. Then they will spend the rest of their day assessing and diagnosing patients, making care plans for them, and performing some procedures.
FAQs for Medical Assistants vs. Physician Assistants
Do medical assistants or physician assistants make more? Physician assistants make more than three times as much as medical assistants.
How long does it take to become a medical assistant vs physician assistant? You can become a certified medical assistant in as little as four months. It takes about six years to become a physician assistant.
Is it harder to become a medical assistant or physician assistant? It is more difficult to become a physician assistant than it is to become a medical assistant.
What can a physician assistant do that a medical assistant can’t? A physician assistant can make diagnoses, order tests, prescribe medications, and perform complex procedures.
Is a medical assistant or physician assistant higher up? A physician assistant has a larger scope of practice than a medical assistant. In fact, many medical assistants work under the supervision of a physician assistant.
Can a medical assistant identify as a physician assistant? A medical assistant should not identify as a physician assistant, since their scope of practice and education requirements are very different.
Can a medical assistant become a physician assistant? If a medical assistant chooses to go back to school, they can become a physician assistant. Many people work as medical assistants during physician assistant school.
Is a CMA higher than a PA? Even if they become certified, a medical assistant has a narrower scope of practice than a physician assistant. You could say that a PA is higher than a CMA.
Other Healthcare Career Comparisons
Here are some other career comparisons we've written that may help you decide which is best for you:
- Medical Assistant vs. Medical Administrative Assistant
- Medical Assistant vs. Pharmacy Technician
- Medical Assistant vs. Nurse
- Medical Assistant vs. Certified Nursing Assistant
- Medical Assistant vs. Patient Care Technician
- Medical Assistant vs. Licensed Practical Nurse
- Medical Assistant vs. Dental Assistant
- Medical Assistant vs. Phlebotomist
- Medical Assisting vs. Medical Coding & Billing
- Medical Assistant vs. EMT
- Medical Assistant vs. Medical Lab Technician
- Medical Assistant vs. Certified Medical Assistant vs. Registered Medical Assistant
- How to Become an RN as a MA
- Alternatives to a Medical Assistant Career