Healthcare worker in front of a hospital bed

Medical Assistant vs. Physician Assistant

Discover the Differences in Responsibilities, Schooling, Requirements, Salary, and Job Outlook

Healthcare worker in front of a hospital bed

Once you acquire the education and skills to become a Medical Assistant (MA), you’ll discover many career options and types of facilities where you can work—like hospitals, outpatient centers, and physician’s offices. But you may not realize that becoming an MA can also serve as a springboard into related careers or help you succeed in additional training programs that can build on your healthcare career.

This article is part of a series that compares the differences between a Medical Assistant and other related careers. Here, the focus is on Medical Assistant vs. Physician Assistant and the differences in schooling requirements, job outlook, and average salaries for these jobs.

If you’re interested in preparing for a MA career, you can read more in our related article about how to become a Medical Assistant.

Medical Assistant vs. Physician Assistant: Definition

As we compare Medical Assistant vs. Physician Assistant, you’ll notice some significant differences in the amount of required training, certifications, and average salaries. However, you may want to pursue either of these jobs based on your personal goals and long-term work preferences. It’s good to learn about the essential characteristics of each job so you can better understand what the right step is for you. Let’s start by defining each role.

What is a Medical Assistant?

The Medical Assistant definition provided by The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that MAs complete administrative and clinical tasks in hospitals, offices of physicians, and other healthcare facilities. Medical Assistants can choose from several certification programs based on their career goals and the state where they plan to work.

What is a Physician Assistant (PA)?

And what is the job definition for a Physician Assistant? Like Medical Assistants, PAs provide medical care under the direction of doctors. But with more advanced training and certification, PAs can perform many additional tasks. For example, they can order and interpret tests, administer treatments, and even prescribe medicine.

Medical Assistant vs. Physician Assistant: Job Description and Duties

One of the best ways to understand and compare these two careers is to look at the job duties. This will give you a good idea of what the daily work might entail. Let’s start by looking at Medical Assistant duties.

What Does a Medical Assistant do?

Doctors and nurses have come to rely on MAs to handle administrative and clinical tasks as part of their day-to-day responsibilities. In this role, your actual tasks will vary by the type of office or facility you work in, but the following is an excellent general overview of job duties.

Medical Assistant Responsibilities

  • Updates the patient’s medical records
  • Administers medicines under the supervision of a physician
  • Assists during medical examinations
  • Prepares medical samples for laboratory testing
  • Manages the schedule of appointments
  • Assists patients with their bills and in filling out forms

What Does a Physician Assistant do?

And what about the Physician Assistant duties? PAs examine, diagnose, and treat patients. They work with physicians or surgeons and other healthcare workers. Their specific duties can vary based on their specialty and work environment. Here are some of the primary duties and tasks that they perform daily:

Physician Assistant Responsibilities

  • Review medical histories and examine patients
  • Order and interpret diagnostic tests such as x-rays or blood work
  • Diagnose a patient’s injury or illness
  • Administer treatments and immunizations
  • Educate and counsel patients and their families
  • Research the latest treatments and prescribe medicine

Where Do Medical Assistants Work?

Next, let’s review where MAs typically work. The majority, 58%, work in physicians’ offices. Another 15% work in state, local, and private hospitals. Others work in outpatient care centers (9%) and offices of chiropractors (4%). Work schedules at these offices and facilities are usually full-time, and some require evenings, weekends, and holidays—especially medical facilities that are always open.

Female medical worker with a patient

Where Do PAs Work?

Not surprisingly, the majority of Physician Assistants also work in doctor’s offices (51%). Another 23% of PAs work in state, local, and private hospitals. Some PAs work in outpatient care centers (10%), educational jobs (4%), and government jobs (2%). PAs usually work full-time schedules and may work more than 40 hours per week, including some work on nights, weekends, or holidays.

Medical Assistant vs. Physician Assistant: Schooling

Our next comparison is the amount of education you need for each of these careers and how long it will take to finish the required training or degree. Here’s what you need to know:

Educational Requirements for Medical Assistants

Most Medical Assistants must not only complete an educational program accredited by an approved regional or national accreditation agency but also become certified. You’ll study multiple areas in your program, such as patient interaction, basic coding and billing, medical office procedures, and electronic medical records. You’ll also learn how to assess and intervene in specific patient situations. You can choose to complete a diploma program or an associate degree program.

For example, Brookline College offers an accelerated Medical Assisting Program that provides the necessary training for entry-level positions in a healthcare facility such as a clinic, physician’s office, or urgent care facility. This program offers a healthcare diploma.

Once you graduate, you can choose from five different Medical Assistant certifications. In addition, some employers, or states, require a specific certification to start working in that state. For more information, read our article, The Best Medical Assistant Certification for Your Career.

What Degree Do You Need to Be a Medical Assistant?

You can earn a healthcare diploma or complete an associate degree program.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Medical Assistant?

Your program can take anywhere from nine months (for a healthcare diploma) to two years (if you choose the option to obtain an associate degree). The diploma program at Brookline College can be completed in about nine months.

Educational Requirements for Physician Assistants

To become a Physician Assistant, you must graduate from a PA program accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, Inc. (ARC-PA). But before applying for and being accepted to a PA program, most applicants have already earned a bachelor’s degree and completed some patient care work experience. Generally, 2-4 years of undergraduate coursework with a focus in science is preferred. Acceptance into some programs can be competitive.

Once graduating from a PA program, all states and the District of Columbia require Physician Assistants to be licensed. Program graduates can pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE), administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants. Additionally, licensed PAs must complete 100 hours of continuing education every two years.

What Degree Do You Need to Be a Physician Assistant?

You must graduate from a Physician Assistant program accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, Inc. (ARC-PA). A bachelor’s degree is usually required to apply for this program.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Physician Assistant?

PA programs take at least two years to complete. But remember that most students have earned a bachelor’s degree before that, which can take up to four years.

Close up of a woman using a calculator

Medical Assistant vs. Physician Assistant: Salary

Another important comparison is how much you can make performing these two medical jobs. Look below to see the average salaries for MAs and PAs.

How Much Do Medical Assistants Make?

The BLS reports that the median annual wage for Medical Assistants was $38,000 in May 2021. The lowest-paid 10 percent earned around $29,000, while the highest 10 percent earned more than $48,000.

This chart shows the top paying industries for Medical Assistants:

Industry  Hourly average wage  Annual average wage
Agencies, brokerages, and other insurance-related activities $ 25.46 $ 52,970
Professional and commercial equipment and supplies merchant wholesalers $ 23.53 $ 48,940
Outpatient care centers $ 21.48 $ 44,680
Electronic Shopping and mail-order houses $ 21.36 $ 44,420
Insurance carriers $ 21.34 $ 44,390

Below are the highest-paying states for Medical Assistants:

State  Hourly average wage  Annual average wage
Washington $ 22.75 $ 47,320
District of Columbia $ 22.45 $ 46,690
Alaska $ 22.30 $ 46,390
California $ 21.53 $ 44,780
Massachusetts $ 21.25 $ 44,200

Here are the cities with the highest pay for Medical Assistants:

City Hourly average wage  Annual average wage
Vallejo, CA $ 28.21 $ 58,670
San Francisco, CA $ 26.41 $ 54,930
San Jose, CA $ 25.90 $ 53,870
Santa Rosa, CA $ 25.74 $ 53,530
Sacramento, CA $ 24.78 $ 51,530
Seattle, WA $ 24.43 $ 50,820
Napa, CA $ 24.27 $ 50,480
Fairbanks, AK $ 22.62 $ 47,060
Portland, OR $ 22.41 $ 46,620
Olympia, WA $ 21.95 $ 45,650

How Much Do Physician Assistants Make?

The BLS reports that the average annual wage for Physician Assistants was $119,000 in May 2021. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $78,000, while the highest 10 percent earned more than $164,000.

This chart shows the highest paying industries for PAs:

Industry  Hourly average wage  Annual average wage
Scientific R&D services $ 64.34 $ 133,830
Nursing care facilities $ 64.21 $ 133,550
Outpatient care centers $ 62.46 $ 129,910
Management of companies $ 62.16 $ 129,280
Local government (excluding schools and hospitals) $ 59.74 $ 124,270

Below are the highest-paying states for PAs:

State  Hourly average wage  Annual average wage
Rhode Island $ 70.62 $ 146,880
Alaska $ 70.11 $ 145,830
Connecticut $ 68.17 $ 141.790
New Jersey $ 67.34 $ 140,080
New Hampshire $ 66.02 $ 137,330

Here are the cities with the highest pay for PAs.

Metropolitan area Hourly average wage Annual average wage 
Portsmouth, NH $ 80.40 $ 167,240
Panama City, FL $ 79.33 $ 165,000
San Francisco, CA $ 78.92 $ 164,150
San Jose, CA $ 78.71 $ 163,720
Vallejo, CA $ 77.90 $ 162,030
Santa Rosa, CA $ 75.83 $ 157,720
Albany, OR $ 75.59 $ 157,230
Corvallis, OR $ 75.48 $ 157,000
Sacramento, CA $ 73.75 $ 153,400
Modesto, CA $ 73.22 $ 152,300

Medical Assistant vs. Physician Assistant: Job Outlook

Now that you understand the job duties for these two healthcare jobs and the educational requirements and average salaries for each, let’s look at the projected job outlooks.

Medical Assistant Job Outlook

How are MA careers expected to grow over the next decade? The BLS reports that the employment of Medical Assistants is projected to grow 16% from 2020 to 2030, much faster than the average of all other occupations.

More than 104,000 openings for Medical Assistants are projected each year, on average, over the next decade. These rapidly expanding jobs may be in hospitals, physician offices, and other healthcare facilities. Many of these jobs may require Medical Assistant certifications.

Click here to learn more on how to become a Medical Assistant.

Young doctor in front of a medical team

Physician Assistant Job Outlook

Employment for PAs is projected to grow exponentially—estimated at 28% from 2020 to 2030. One of the reasons the demand for new PAs will increase so dramatically is to replace employees who retire. More than 12,000 job openings are expected each year during the decade.

Which Job Is Right for You?

If you’re just starting your healthcare career, you wonder which of these two careers is for you. Although you can become a Medical Assistant in less than a year, don’t let that be the deciding factor. You may choose to become a Medical Assistant to gain experience in the medical field, even if your eventual goal is to become a Physician’s Assistant. A Medical Assisting background can also be a solid foundation for many other healthcare careers in hospitals or doctors’ offices.

If you’re interested in the more advanced care of patients, with the ability to do some things that a doctor does—like treat patients and prescribe medicine—starting on the path to becoming a PA may be for you. Although the education program is much longer and requires completing a program beyond a bachelor’s degree, the average salary* for PAs is one of the highest for those working in a physician’s office (besides doctors).

Reach Your Healthcare Career at Brookline College

Good luck as you choose the right healthcare career and the educational partner to prepare you to work in your field of choice. Brookline College offers a Medical Assisting Program that provides the necessary training for entry-level positions as a Medical Assistant. Brookline does not currently offer a PA program, but they do offer several bachelor’s degree programs that could prepare you to apply for a PA program at another school.