Discover the differences between physicians and physician assistants.

The difference between physician and physician assistant jobs

With so many different fields within the wider healthcare industry, there is a position for just about anyone aiming to enter a medical-related career. It is vital to develop a comprehensive understanding of the variances between the jobs and responsibilities of each to determine which path is the right for you. Even patients can benefit from learning the distinctions between similar roles to better realize the value of each member of their care teams. Discover the difference between physician and physician assistant jobs:

Training and education paths

One distinction between doctors and physician assistants is the time it takes to become a professional in these roles. It takes physician assistants about one-fourth of the time it does for physicians to complete their education. Speaking with U.S. News and World Report, Chris Hanifin, who is the physician assistant program chairman at New Jersey’s Seton Hall University, said that after obtaining their undergraduate degree, PAs need but two or three more years of training. In the physician assistant programs, future PAs take classes in anatomy, physiology and pharmacology, among other science courses.

Gap Medics went into greater depth on the details of PA programs, noting that class time is often divided between lectures and hands-on experience. At the end of their PA program, graduates take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination and earn a Master’s degree.

For future doctors, before entering medical school, undergraduates must pass the Medical College Admission Test. According to the Princeton Review, there are two paths to becoming a medical doctor: through schools that train in allopathic medicine and those that educate on osteopathic medicine. Either way, medical school takes about four years, and future physicians must complete several years of residency post-graduation. This means training could take potentially 11 years overall – a far cry from the PAs path of three years.

Much of the first two years of medical school are spent studying what PAs learn. However, after the first half of medical school, students must pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination Part 1. Upon completing the next two years of medical school, which involve clinical rotations, students take the USMLE Part 2. Finally, during residency, soon-to-be-doctors take the third part of the test.

Medical student holding books and backpack.The education path to becoming a doctor is longer than that of physician assistants.

Responsibilities of physician versus physician assistant jobs

Job-related duties vary once doctors and physician assistants enter their careers. According to the American Academy of Physician Assistants, with full practice ability, PAs can write prescriptions, help doctors perform surgery, complete physical exams of patients, take medical histories, make diagnoses, create treatment plans and counsel patients, among other duties. However, their ability to complete more advanced tasks depends on their employer and the state in which they work.

Meanwhile, doctors, with their higher education, are assigned greater responsibility on the job. They complete all the same duties as physician assistants in addition to delivering babies, performing surgeries and overall working more independently.

Doctor consulting with patient in hospital.Doctors have greater independence that physician assistants.

Work environment distinctions

While doctors and physician assistants carry many of the same responsibilities, their level of independence is vastly different. As USN explained, PAs are legally obligated to remain supervised when completing work. This does not mean doctors must be physically present with PAs at all times. On the contrary, PAs often visit with patients and make decisions independently. However, supervising physicians responsible for PAs and may have review policies of their own.

Much like doctors, PAs can work in different specialties. These areas range anywhere from cardiology and oncology to gastroenterology and neurology. Additionally, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the majority of PAs work in physician offices, while 22 percent work in hospitals.

Because of the greater responsibilities doctors have, they may see more variety in their day-to-day duties than PAs. This also means they have potentially less of a work-life balance. After all, physicians must often be on call, meaning they could be pulled away from family dinners and birthday parties in the event of an emergency. Of course, their specialty also plays a role in how much their work consumes them. The BLS listed several popular medical occupations, including obstetricians and gynecologists, anesthesiologists and general pediatricians.

Physicians also deal with the non-clinical aspects of the job. Forbes contributor Dr. Robert Pearl called it the business side of healthcare, noting that administrative duties can take up as much as 50 percent of the day. For some, tasks such as handling insurance and coding requirements may dampen the spirit of medicine. However, lawmakers continually work on shifting resources to give physicians more time to deliver quality care, such as the switch from fee-for-service to value-based care.

“The median salary for doctors working in specialty areas was $411,852.”

A gap in salary ranges

According to the BLS, the 2015 median salary for physician assistants was $98,180. However, those in outpatient care centers earned the highest wages, with a median salary of $106,010, followed by PAs working in hospitals, who made a median salary of $101,500.

Meanwhile, in 2015, primary care physicians made significantly more with a median salary of $241,273. The median salary for doctors working in specialty areas was $411,852, with the highest earning occupation being anesthesiology.

The decision of whether to enter a career path as a physician assistant or a physician depends on numerous factors, including the length of schooling, job flexibility and independence. Overall, both are rewarding occupations that allow you to make a positive impact on the lives of patients.


  1. I had no idea that there was so much variation in how to go about getting into the medical field. I think it’s interesting that the highest median salary was for physician assistants working in outpatient care centers. Obviously, primary care is going to make more, and same with the specialty doctors, but still, this was all interesting information. Thanks for sharing!

  2. It is very interesting that despite the disparity in pay and education, health insurance pays the practice the same and the patient is charged the same co-pay whether a doctor or a physician’s assistant is the person servicing the patient.

    That should really change. The consumer should get a price break if you are getting the person with 3 years education rather than 11 years of education. There should be an additional price break if you end up being seen by a nurse practitioner as well. It’s like the difference between having your car serviced at the 10 Minute Oil Change Place versus serviced by a Master Mechanic, there the labour changes are wildly different as they should be.

  3. 11 years for physicians takes into account there undergrad and 3 for PAs does not account for their undergrad. Most PAs these days have a masters degree meaning they have studied 6 to 7 years, and may or may not have completed a 1 to 2 year residency in addition to that. Yes, physicians are experts in their particular fields, but PAs are also highly trained and capable of providing high quality care. Many of them took their classes at medical schools alongside future physicians.

  4. This was all interesting information. Cleared my Every doubt about the Difference Between a Physician and Physician Assistant. Thanks for sharing!

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