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Physician Assistant Programs

Physician assistant programs are not identical.  Indeed, they can differ significantly from each other.  In order to avoid wasting time by applying to programs that are not suited to their needs, students should do some extensive research and evaluation.  For example, some physician assistant programs place their primary focus on one particular specialty, while other programs concentrate on other specialties.  For example, one program may focus on primary care while another concentrates on surgical care.

The differences between physician assistant programs go beyond any focus on specialties, however.  Keep in mind that some of these programs allow their students to earn an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree.  Others only offer a graduate certification.  But still others give their students the opportunity to earn a master’s degree.  That is a significant distinction and one that should be considered by students while they’re choosing a program.  Likewise, some programs can be completed in two years, while others require a longer period.  And the tuition for some programs is only a few thousand dollars, but the tuition for other programs can be as high as $20,000.

As you can see, it’s absolutely essential to research these programs thoroughly.  No one wants to make a mistake by selecting the wrong program.  Investigating and evaluating top physician assistant programs is vital.

  • Look for Program Accreditation

All top physician assistant programs should be properly accredited.  If you choose a program that is not accredited, you could have a tremendous problem after your graduation.  Despite making a significant investment of time and money, students completing a program that has not been fully accredited by the Commission on Allied Health Education Programs will not be eligible to work as physician assistants.  All your work would be in vain if you choose an unaccredited program.  For that reason, it’s highly recommended that students check (and re-check) the status of a program’s accreditation before enrolling.  Make sure you choose a properly accredited program!

  • Determine the Program’s Focus

As mentioned above, different physician assistant programs may focus on different specialties within the overall profession.  Some of the possibilities for this focus include primary care, surgical care, internal medicine and psychiatry.  Look carefully at each program you’re considering in order to determine its specific program focus.  Programs will put some emphasis on their program focus as part of their student selection criteria.  For example, if one of the top programs states that students are accepted based partially on the program’s focus on internal medicine, students who have worked in that field will probably be given stronger consideration during the application process than students who lack that type of work experience.

Two particular programs provide a couple of concrete examples of this admissions practice.  The physician assistant program operated by the Duke University Medical Center specializes in surgery, while The Albert Einstein Medical Center Physician Assistant Emergency Medicine Residency program concentrates in emergency medicine.  Students who want to apply to a program based on certain selection criteria should keep this in mind.

  • What Type of Degree is Being Offered by the Program?

Students who want to attend a top program should ask themselves whether they wish to seek a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree.  In the old days, students used to be able to “get away with” only earning a physician assistant bachelor’s degree upon graduation from an accredited program.  Now, however, the current trend involves obtaining a master’s degree.  In that regard, here is some important information that all students should remember as they’re choosing the physician assistant programs to which they will apply.

Statistics indicate that as recently as 1997, only 8% of all physician assistants held a master’s degree.  But, that number has risen precipitously.   As of only 11 years later (in 2008), 43% of all physician assistants had earned a master’s degree.  This astonishing leap in the number of graduates holding the higher degree indicates just how popular master’s degree programs have become in this profession.  And, if you hope to become a university faculty member or hold some other teaching position in the field, you’ll be required to hold a master’s degree.

  • What is the Program’s First-Time Pass-Fail Rate?

A program’s pass-fail rate represents the percentage of graduates of that particular program who earn a passing grade on the national board exam.  It is essential to obtain this information before applying to a program.  A program’s pass-fail rate is such crucial information that it is not merely recommended that all students ask for it before applying – students are urged to affirmatively demand and be informed of the program’s pass-fail rate before submitting their applications.  Moreover, students must request the program’s “first-time” pass-fail rate, not the overall rate.  The overall pass-fail rate is virtually meaningless because some program graduates do eventually pass the national board exam, but only after taking it several times.  Unfortunately, graduates who fail the exam the first time around have a reduced rate of passing on their later attempts.

As you can see from the foregoing information, top physician assistant programs are not identical.  Instead, they can differ significantly from each other.  What significance does this have for students who wish to become physician assistants?  To begin with, it means students should always carefully and thoroughly research and evaluate each specific program they’re considering.  As an example, if you want to focus on obtaining a physician assistant position in primary care, you’ll be very disappointed if you apply to a program and later discover that it focuses on internal medicine or psychiatry!  Researching and evaluating a program before you apply can help reduce the likelihood of wasting your time.  In addition to a program’s focus, you should also consider the type of degree you wish to earn, program accreditation, and the first-time pass-fail rates of the programs you’re considering.