PA Medical School Students

Should I Go to Medical School or PA School?

A Physician Assistant/Associate (PA) is an integral member of the healthcare team who examines, diagnoses and treats patients under the supervision of a physician. This profession was created to improve and expand healthcare, with the first PA class graduating in 1967. Since then, this profession has played a vital role in offering affordable quality healthcare to rural and underserved areas where physicians are in short supply. The profession is currently undergoing a name change from Physician Assistant to Physician Associate, and the national demand for PAs is expected to grow by 28% through 2031.

Today, many aspiring healthcare professionals are going directly to PA school to pursue a career in this field. You may wonder whether medical school or PA school is the best route for you.

When weighing your options, consider your personal preferences and learn as much as possible about both professions. Here are some essential factors to consider.

Is Applying for PA School the Easier Route?

The career path of a PA is appealing in that it involves two to three years of professional training in a Master’s degree program, compared to the four years of medical school followed by a three- to seven-year residency program required to obtain a Doctor of Medicine (MD).

Remember that only the first two years of medical school involve regular time spent in lectures and labs. After that, most of your time is spent doing clinical work and caring for patients. You even receive a salary during residency. 

A PA program, by contrast, is very intensive and fast-paced, as the medical curriculum and clinical rotations are condensed into a short period. For this reason, some may consider PA school to be even more challenging than medical school.

While getting into medical school is notoriously competitive, the admissions process for PA programs is also highly competitive. The overall acceptance rate for all who apply to PA school each year is around 32% per the PAEA, compared to 41% for medical schools, according to the American Association of Medical Colleges.

According to a 2020 report conducted by the PA Education Association, successful 2019 applicants to PA school had a median science GPA of 3.53 and an overall GPA of 3.6. By contrast, the average GPAs of successful 2018-19 medical school applicants was 3.65 in science and 3.72 overall. 

PA schools typically have more rigorous requirements than medical schools concerning clinical experience. Many PA programs require 1,000 hours of hands-on patient care experience to be considered for admission. 

Most PA schools do not require the MCAT to be eligible for admission, which you must take to be considered for medical school. Some PA schools require additional standardized exams such as the GRE or a newer PA-specific exam called the PA-CAT.

Given all these factors, it would be a mistake to take the PA route simply because you believe it is easier than pursuing an MD.

Balancing Salaries As a PA/MD With Cost of Education

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2021 median pay for PAs nationwide was $121,530, while that of physicians and surgeons was equal to or greater than $208,000 annually. However, your specialty also plays a significant role in your earnings potential. Family and general medicine practitioners—who make up the majority of doctors—earn around this figure, while average wages for cardiologists are $353,970. Anesthesiologists can expect to make around $331,000. PAs who work in specialties make more money than their primary care counterparts, though the actual number will vary by state and practice type.

You must also take the cost of your education into account. For a PA, this adds up to $70,000 – $90,000 on average, while the schooling required to obtain your MD will cost you, on average, $200,000 – $300,000.

Scope of Practice

A PA’s scope of practice—the activities a medical professional can legally perform—is more limited than an MD’s. These restrictions vary by state, but as a PA, typically, you must have some degree of supervision from a physician or collaborate with a physician as part of a medical group.

That said, PAs are gaining more autonomy. Today, they can generally carry out many of the same roles as physicians, including:

  • Evaluating and diagnosing patients
  • Ordering and interpreting lab tests
  • Performing medical procedures
  • Prescribing medications
  • Developing and managing treatment plans
  • Assisting in surgeries

More states are loosening administrative restrictions on PA practice to support patient care, particularly in rural and underserved areas. 

Do You Want to Be a Specialist or a Generalist?

One aspect of the PA profession that appeals to many is its flexibility. PA education provides a comprehensive overview of various topics, equipping you with the knowledge to enter any chosen area upon graduation. This also allows you to pivot if you’re looking for a change. According to a 2010 survey covering four decades of data, 49% of PAs had worked in two specialties at different points in their career (The American Academy of Physician Associates). 

If, on the other hand, you prefer to hone your skills and build your career in one area of medicine, then medical school may be your best bet. 

Pursuing Medical School or PA School

If you decide that medical school is your best route, consider Keck Graduate Institute (KGI)’s Postbaccalaureate Premedical Certificate (PPC) program. Not only will this nine-month academic enrichment program help you gain an edge for admission to medical school, but the graduate-level science courses and advanced business studies will be invaluable to you as a future physician.

Additionally, you will gain a tremendous amount of personal and developmental value from the programs:

  • Individual financial planning
  • Mentoring
  • Connection to KGI’s strong alum network
  • Overall collaborative culture with ample opportunities for partnerships and lasting friendships

If, on the other hand, you wish to pursue a career as a PA, then consider KGI’s Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies (MSPA) program. This program prepares you to become an integral healthcare team member and provide compassionate care to your community. Some key features that make KGI’s program truly one-of-a-kind are:

  • Innovative teaching methods grounded in an active learning classroom model emphasizing engagement, critical thinking skills, and teamwork
  • Early clinical experiences before the start of clinical rotations, strengthening interpersonal, technical, and clinical reasoning skills
  • Rich clinical experiences across multiple specialties and settings in the region’s top medical facilities
  • Opportunities to develop valuable leadership and entrepreneurial skills to create a unique career path ideally suited to you
  • Community-based projects that will prepare you to recognize health disparities and work towards achieving health equity by providing compassionate care

You may want to enhance your experience and academic credentials to gain a competitive advantage for admission into PA school. If that is the case, then KGI’s Postbaccalaureate Pre-PA Certificate (PPA) program can help you to achieve your goals!

If you are ready to embark on your career path as a PA or MD, contact us today at KGI to learn more about these programs and how to apply.