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A physician assistant, or PA, is a licensed healthcare worker trained to practice medicine while directly supervised by a physician, medical doctor or doctor of osteopathy. Despite the similarity of the titles, a physician assistant is not a medical assistant. A medical assistant is a minimally trained healthcare worker, prepared with vocational school instruction and completion of a certificate program. A physician assistant, on the other hand, is a healthcare professional, often with a bachelor's degree in a health-related field and a master's degree allowing them to practice with a license. Physician assistant course requirements closely mimic classes required in advanced nursing and medical programs, and include such topics as anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, genetics and statistics.
Depending upon which one of the 159 programs offered in the US one applies to, physician assistant course requirements vary widely. The vast majority, however, are challenging programs designed to produce capable PAs who can practice safely with minimal physician supervision. The usual time spent completing minimum physician assistant course requirements ranges from two to three years. In addition to specific classes to pass, these programs also include up to 2,500 supervised clinical care hours usually taken at the same time as classroom instruction.
Some of the physician assistant course requirements are the same as those required for nursing students or premedical students. These classes would include basic biology and chemistry courses, a full year of human anatomy and physiology, physics, nutrition and genetics. A second full year of chemistry, in the form of organic chemistry I and II, are also PA course requirements. Social science courses — including sociology, psychology and abnormal psychology — are also necessary. Anthropological or multi-disciplinary courses, such as those on the topic of death and dying, may also be required.
Advanced physician assistant course requirements build upon the foundation of the first year courses. Biochemistry classes are required: a general class and an advanced class anticipated to be specific to the student's eventual practice. A full year's course of general microbiology followed by microbiology and disease are also required. One or more courses in basic statistics may be required in order to ensure each graduate's ability to evaluate clinical research and drug studies that she will be required to review throughout her career. Between these two levels of physician assistant course requirements, students are also expected to study for a successfully complete the Graduate Record Examination, or GRE®, to qualify for master's degree work.
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