Whether you are a student considering PA education as your next step or an advisor helping a student who is, we have several resources to help make the decision and application process smoother.
General Information on PAs and PA Education
If you’re just beginning to explore PA education, you may have questions about the profession and PA education. Here’s what you need to know.
PAs are medical providers, most with graduate-level educations. They are licensed to diagnose and treat illness and disease and to prescribe medication for patients.
PAs work in physician offices, hospitals, and clinics in collaboration with a licensed physician. Because of their advanced education in general medicine, modeled after physician education, PAs can treat patients with significant autonomy within the physician/PA relationship.
In the primary care setting, PAs can provide almost all the clinical services that physicians provide, including performing physical exams, diagnosing and treating illnesses and prescribing medications.
PAs are qualified to practice by graduation from an accredited PA educational program and certification by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA).
Some physician assistant (PA) programs offer a pre-professional (or undergraduate) phase prior to the professional (or graduate) phase of their PA programs. Pre-professional programs:
- Are intended for recent high school graduates or students who have some college credit, but not a degree.
- Allow students to complete the core required courses for the professional phase.
- Vary in length from four to six years — combined time for the pre-professional and professional phases.
- Require enrolled students to successfully complete all academic course work in order to advance to the professional phase to complete their PA education.
As of March 2020, there are 268 accredited physician assistant programs. PA programs in the United States are located at medical schools, hospitals, two- and four-year colleges and universities, and in the military.
In order to practice as a PA, you must graduate from an accredited PA program and pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE). The PANCE is administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants.
PAs and PA students can pursue additional education through postgraduate PA programs. A postgraduate program may choose to seek accreditation from the ARC-PA, although not all do.
Many postgraduate programs belong to the Association of Postgraduate Physician Assistant Programs (APPAP). All APPAP members are formal programs that offer structured curricula, including didactic and clinical components. They are designed to educate PAs for a defined period of time (usually 12 months) in a medical specialty, such as surgery or dermatology.
The are four primary organizations that are associated with the physician assistant profession:
Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA)
PAEA is the only national organization representing physician assistant educational programs in the United States. Currently, all of the accredited programs in the country are members of PAEA. PAEA provides services for faculty at its member programs, as well as to applicants, students, and other stakeholders.
The Association was founded in 1972 as the Association of Physician Assistant Programs. Member programs voted to adopt the current name in 2005.
American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA)
AAPA is the national professional society for physician assistants. It represents a profession of more than 131,000 certified PAs across all medical and surgical specialties, in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, the majority of the US territories, and within the military.
AAPA advocates and educates on behalf of the profession and the patients PAs serve.
AAPA works to ensure the professional growth, personal excellence and recognition of physician assistants. It also works to enhance their ability to improve the quality, accessibility, and cost-effectiveness of patient-centered healthcare.
For more information on AAPA, visit the AAPA website.
The Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, Inc. (ARC-PA)
The ARC-PA is the recognized accrediting agency that protects the interests of the public, including current and prospective PA students, and the PA profession by defining the standards for PA education and evaluating PA educational programs within the territorial United States to ensure their compliance with those standards.
There are three categories of accreditation:
- Provisional Accreditation. Provisional accreditation is the status of accreditation granted for a limited, defined period of time to a new program that, at the time of the site visit, has demonstrated its preparedness to initiate a program in accordance with the Standards.
- Continuing Accreditation. Continuing accreditation is the term used to describe accreditation that is granted when an established program is in compliance with the Standards.
- Clinical Postgraduate. Accreditation of clinical postgraduate programs is voluntary. It serves to provide programs an external validation of their educational offering.
For a list of accredited programs, applicant programs, or more information on the ARC-PA, visit the ARC-PA website.
National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA)
NCCPA is the only certifying organization for physician assistants in the United States. NCCPA is dedicated to assuring the public that certified physician assistants meet established standards of clinical knowledge and cognitive skills upon entry into practice and throughout their careers. All U.S. states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. territories have decided to rely on NCCPA certification as one of the criteria for licensure or regulation of physician assistants.
For more information on NCCPA, visit the NCCPA website.
PAEA Program Directory
The PA Program Directory is the best guide to PA programs for prospective PA students. It provides detailed information about tuition, curriculum, degrees awarded, entrance requirements, and much more for each of the accredited and developing PA programs in the country.
Podcast: The PA Path
Kevin Lohenry’s PA Path Podcast is for the PA community and all who are affiliated with it. PAs play an integral role in health for our communities and there are many aspects to this profession that deserve to be highlighted including demystifying the admissions process for prospective PAs.
PAEA CEO Mary Jo Bondy appears in the latest episode.