Students must complete an accredited physician assistant program to become a licensed physician assistant in the United States. There are 170 physician assistant programs that have received accreditation from the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). The ARC-PA specifies standards for programs in order to ensure that PAs receive quality education.

Graduating from an accredited PA program is essential for prospective physician assistants because only students who have completed an accredited PA program may go on to take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE), which is overseen by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA), and become Physician Assistant-Certified.

Admission to a Physician Assistant Program

Most physician assistant programs are graduate programs that offer a Master’s degree in Physician Assistant Studies. Other programs offer a Bachelor’s degree or an Associate degree. The majority of applicants to PA programs have already obtained a Bachelor’s degree and many have as much as three years of healthcare-related experience. Some applicants have experience as nurses, EMTs and/or paramedics.

In general, applicants must have completed at least two years of college and some physician assistant programs require GRE and MCAT scores for admission. Select programs offer pre-professional phases for applicants without the required academic experience. These pre-professional phases, or pre-PA programs, are for high school graduates and students who need to complete the prerequisite courses.

Physician Assistant Instruction and Training

Physician assistant programs are usually two years long and may range from 24 months to 30 months of study. Accredited programs include both classroom instruction and clinical rotations. Many PA programs offer clinical training in affiliation with medical schools. Students take classes such as human anatomy, physical diagnosis, pathology, physiology, clinical medicine and medical ethics.

Choosing a Physician Assistant Program

There are 170 physician assistant programs across the country and many differ from one another. Not all PA programs offer Bachelor’s degrees, pre-professional education, and many vary in cost and program length. When choosing a program, it is important to make sure it is accredited through the ARC-PA. Students may also want to consider the postgraduate programs that the university or college offers in case they want to further their education past a Master’s degree in Physician Assistant Studies.

Rankings of Physician Assistant Programs

PA Program Rankings 2012-2013 by US News:

  1. Duke University
  2. University of Iowa
  3. University of Utah
  4. Emory University
  5. George Washington University
  6. Baylor College of Medicine
  7. Oregon Health and Sciences University
  8. University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey – Newark
  9. University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center – Dallas
  10. University of Washington

Additional Education

Some PA students may choose to continue their education and specialize in a specific area of practice. A residency, such as that completed by doctors in training, is not required, but the PA student may prolong their education for a few years to take a postgraduate program and train in a specialization, such as internal medicine, rural primary care or occupational medicine.