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Online Physician Assistant Programs

April 7, 2021 | Staff Writers

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There is no doubt that the demand for healthcare professionals continues to grow across the globe. Demand for physician assistants happens to be one of the fastest-growing professions within that field. 

In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics states that employment for qualified physician assistants with clinical medical experience is projected to grow by an astonishing 31%, which means this field is growing much faster than the average for all associated occupations.  

It helps that professionals within this field are extremely well paid and enjoy a career that allows them to make a difference in the lives of almost everyone they come across.

That being said, it’s important to state that the process of becoming a physician assistant isn’t easy. Back in 2009, an assortment of bodies including The American Academy of Physician Assistants, the National Commission for the Certification of Physician Assistants, the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant and the Physician Assistant Educational Association made a declaration that a Master’s Degree would be both the entry-level and terminal degree for anyone looking to become a qualified and certified physician assistant. 

That in itself meant that physician assistant studies programs and accreditation processes would not only be demanding but capable of producing the best professionals in the field. The right PA program, be it online or otherwise, takes years and involves rigorous testing to ensure that, in so far as the physician assistant isn’t a doctor per se, they are the closest thing to one in their own capacity. 

Overview of Courses in Online Physician Assistant Programs

To understand the scope of education involved when you sign up for PA school or an online physician assistant program, you first must understand what being a PA entails. While a PA is considered a doctor, they are educated and trained to undertake many of the same critical tasks that doctors take in a medical facility setting. These include:

  • The diagnosis of injuries and illnesses
  • Creating and implementing appropriate treatment plans
  • Providing pre-and postoperative care
  • Prescribing medication to patients
  • Counseling patients about their treatment options as well as care

Even though the education and training offered to a PA are thorough, online physician assistant programs allow potential professionals to become valuable medical practitioners within the medical field without needing to get an MD (Medical Degree) or going through the lengthy clinical rotations that come with it. 

What Can You Expect from an Online Physician Assistant Program?

It’s important to state that while an individual can take most of their course work online, it’s not possible to study, qualify and get accreditation to become a physician assistant entirely online. There are some elements of your education, in addition to your online coursework, that will require you to have numerous hours of hands-on, real-world clinical experience. 

That being said, taking an online physician assistant program is one of the best ways to complete your coursework within a timeline that works around your life and busy schedule. Furthermore, most PA schools will go above and beyond to provide their students with the opportunity to work and get their practical experiences in convenient locations for the PA students in question. 

Here are some of the things you would expect from an online physician assistant program:

  • A cloud-based digital hub that will allow you to both access and submit your coursework
  • Learning materials that will include a host of media formats such as videos, text, chat, and even one on one video conferencing
  • Access to qualified online instructors – often limited to certain hours
  • Collaboration and communication opportunities between student-student and student-professor
  • Technical support services that will help you resolve any learning-related hardware and software issues
  • Placement support that will help you get localized or convenient placement for your clinical practice or clinical phase 

Suffice it to say that both the curriculum and clinical phase of your education will be time-consuming. Be that as it may, the truth is that you can earn your Master of Science Physician Assistant degree part-time. 

That being said, being a part-time student in this field will be more than just heavily taxing, thanks to the intensive nature of the education process. That’s why many institutions discourage it or limit how much their program is accessible to part-time students. 

If you are going to go down this path, it’s best to determine how feasible studying as a part-time student is as far as their Master of Science Physician Assistant degree program is concerned. 

What Courses Will You Take in an Online Physician Assistant Program?

For the most part, physician assistants get an educational experience similar to that of actual physicians. The only real difference is that, unlike physicians and nurses who have to go through a DNP (Doctor of Nursing Practice), PA students study general medicine instead of specializing in one area of clinical practice. 

This is perhaps illustrated best by the diverse array of courses that physician assistants expect to study when completing their prerequisite coursework. These courses include:

  • Anatomy
  • Biochemistry
  • Preventative medicine
  • Diagnostic studies
  • Clinical laboratory science
  • Behavioral science
  • Medical ethics
  • Pharmacology
  • Microbiology
  • Physiology
  • Pathophysiology
  • Physical diagnosis
  • Clinical medicine

Students are also expected to complete clinical rotations in several focus areas to get the kind of real-life experience they need for provisional accreditation. Thankfully, most online PA schools coordinate these experiences for their students and often find them convenient on-site placements within the student’s local setting.

The type and length of clinical rotation will vary depending on the program you choose. However, for the most part, you’ll find that it involves a combination of the following options:

  • Ambulatory medicine
  • Gastroenterology
  • Behavioral medicine
  • Emergency medicine
  • Cardiology
  • General surgery
  • Primary care
  • Infectious diseases
  • Oncology
  • Pediatrics
  • Internal medicine
  • Women’s health
  • A multitude of surgical specializations

These clinical experiences make up the bulk of a physician assistant’s education and average about 2,000 hours in total. 

It should also be noted that most high-quality Master of Science (MS.) Physician Assistant degree programs require the student to present a final project comprised of clinical and literary research that is publishable quality. Some programs might even require the student to present this project as part of their graduation requirement. 

Admission Requirements for Online Physician Assistant Programs

The first thing you need to remember, and a general rule of thumb to live by, is that the career path to becoming a physician assistant is quite similar to that of becoming a physician. The differences start showing up after pre-med at the graduate level. With that in mind, here are some of the most essential requirements for online physician assistant programs:

Complete Prerequisite Coursework and Get a Bachelor’s Degree

The bachelor’s degree should take you about four years to complete, but PAs take an extra year to ensure that all the prerequisite courses are completed as required. It’s advisable to focus on a health science or science-based field because the coursework will count as part of your prerequisite coursework. 

Some of the preferred bachelor’s degree courses include biology, biochemistry, health sciences, chemistry, nursing, nutrition, physical therapy, pharmacology, neuroscience, psychology, gerontology, human development, child development, or genetics.

It’s also important to remember that, depending on the course you take, some classes such as ethics, statistics, and physics will be required by your online PA program. This means that if these common classes aren’t part of your original bachelor’s degree coursework, you might have to include them in your list of additional classes to fulfill the online PA program requirements. 

Get the Right Kind of Experience

The next step towards becoming a qualified physician assistant is to get the necessary experience. This is one of the main reasons your PA program can’t be done entirely online; every future physician assistant needs to have healthcare experience. The best programs often require two specific types of experience:

  • Patient care experience (PCE) – This is where the student is directly responsible for the patient’s health care
  • Healthcare experience (HCE) – Here, the student isn’t directly responsible for the patient’s care

While every PA program is different in its own ways, typically, programs will require you to accrue at least 1,000 hours of PCE or HCE experience under your belt. The earlier you get this out of the way, the better; however, it’s normal for students to take a “gap year” to fulfill this requirement. 

If you are unsure how many hours you need, you can easily find that information at your specific online PA school website or on the CASPA (Centralized Application Service for Physician Assistants). 

Apply to Your Chosen PA School

After getting your bachelor’s degree and a reasonable amount of PCE or HCE experience, you need to start applying to your chosen PA schools online. There is a very good chance that you will use CASPA (Centralized Application Service for Physician Assistants) for this process. Here is a list of some of the things that you will need:

  • Your undergraduate or post-graduate transcripts: These need to be obtained early on in the process because some undergraduate institutions tend to take their time when it comes to giving these out. It’s advisable to determine how streamlined the process is through your undergraduate college or university and how long it will take them to send those transcripts to CASPA. 
  • Get the necessary letters of recommendation: Most educational institutions will ask you for letters of recommendation from your professors, supervising physicians, and maybe even other physician assistants who can act as references. This allows the institution to gain insight into your character, integrity, work ethics, and general persona. 
  • Prepare a List of Your PCE or HCE Experience: This is a critical part of your qualification as a physician assistant. To prove your number of hours, you should prepare a list that differentiates your HCE and PCE experience. The CASPA application process will demand an accurate and verifiable audit of your accumulated experience in this area. 
  • Personal Statement: As is the case with most higher learning institutions, to join a reputable PA program, you will have to provide a personal statement. In this case, CASPA requires applicants to provide 5,000-character essays that highlight why they would like to join the online PA program of choice. It’s advisable to use this chance to tell a compelling story about why you’ve chosen to become a physician assistant. It’s important to take this part of the application as seriously as possible. Be sure to have it proofread by a friend, a mentor, or even a professional editor before sending it in. 

Prepare for the Interview

Once you have compiled everything, filled out all the necessary documentation, and submitted your CASPA application, you will have to endure a waiting period. If all goes well, you will most likely receive a letter in the mail, an email, or maybe a phone call from the PA program that has accepted your application. 

For the most part, this will be your top-choice program. However, as you wait, you can spend that time preparing for the inevitable interview. To prepare for this, you can carry out research on typical PA program interview tips, go through reference guides or even ask other PAs who have been through this before how it is and how to go about it successfully. 

Bear in mind that every PA program is different and will conduct its own brand of interviewing. One of the best ways to ensure that you have a leg up here is to simply call your top-choice programs and ask about their admissions interview process and style. This should give a good idea of what to expect. 

Available Career Paths to those Who Complete Online Physician Assistant Programs

While becoming a physician assistant and having a career in medical health or a clinical setting might be the main ambition for most students, the truth is that some would like to weigh the option. Thankfully, there are many different career paths outside the clinic that you can pursue with your physician assistant degree qualification. Here are some of the options to consider:

Expert Witness

As a qualified physician assistant, you can act as an expert witness in cases where a professional PA is required to offer their opinion on whether or not another PA (clinically practicing) met the necessary standard of care. Of course, there is a lot more that goes into becoming an expert witness as a PA. If this is something you might be interested in, you can find all the information you need at the American Academy of PAs in Legal Medicine website.

Academics

If you constantly feel as though you were meant to be a teacher, to help guide and mentor future generations of PAs, maybe your calling is in academics. As a qualified PA, you can become an instructor at any one of the many online PA programs if you so choose. You could also become a professor or a leader at a PA program of choice. 

The best part is that most PA programs are always open to preceptors – all you have to do is reach out and offer them your services. Of course, you would have to undergo some further training and qualifications. The Physician Assistant Education Association should have all the resources you need to help put you on the right track. There’s more to becoming an academic as a PA. Aside from the satisfaction that comes with being able to mentor and mold future generations of PAs, you also get a host of incentives, some of which include access to university resources that can help further your own education and or research ambitions. 

Medical Informatics

While it’s true that a career in the medical field can be quite lucrative and that the industry, in general, enjoys a healthy job outlook, having a career in medical informatics might have better prospects. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in this particular niche is expected to grow at an incredible 8% rate through 2029. That’s almost twice as fast as employment growth for all occupations. 

If you have a flair for technology and aren’t keen on working in a clinical setting as a PA, you could consider a medical informatics career. The best part is that, as an IT and medical specialist, you could ply your trade across the public health domain giving you access to robust employment opportunities. You can find out more about having a career in medical informatics via the resources available at the American Medical Informatics Association

Wellness Coach

This is particularly advisable for qualified physician assistants who have health-conscious and are keen on helping others live a more wholesome life. If you are this kind of person, then a career as a wellness coach or director could be viable. 

You can focus on many areas, including dieting, nutrition, mind-body, exercise, and smoking cessation. There are many avenues to take here, but some of the best and most lucrative have to be in a corporate setting. However, you can find a lot of fulfillment and personal time as an independent health and wellness coach. 

Hospital Administration

As a qualified PA, becoming a hospital administrator allows you to make a host of positive changes to how hospitals are run and influence the relationship between medical staff, governing bodies, and department heads. This kind of leadership will raise your visibility as a physician assistant and place more focus on the profession as a whole. 

Medical Communications and Medical Writing

Have you ever wondered who writes or creates all that medical content available both off and online? Medical writers and communicators are a crucial part of the healthcare system as they provide the public and medical-related organizations with the necessary content. 

This kind of material could be used to educate the public and create greater health awareness, inform corporations and the public about certain medical developments and write down policies that affect the health industry as a whole. 

Medical communicators and writers are hired by local and national media houses, the government or public health agencies, biotechnological companies, pharmaceutical companies, and medical device development companies, among many others. The job description often includes creating marketing or advertising material, creating educational material within the medical field, and the regulatory submissions. 

As a medical communicator or writer, your job would be to gather all the necessary information, interpret it and present it in a manner that is appropriate for the specific target audience in question. This means you would need the ability to translate or put highly technical medical information in layman’s terms when addressing the general public and be able to write in medical jargon when addressing the medical fraternity. 

Insurance

There is no doubt that the insurance world is complicated. As such, medical professionals need to be involved in most policymaking, and a qualified physician assistant can help streamline some of the processes. Your responsibilities will involve establishing treatment or reimbursement protocols as well as review charts. You are most likely going to work in health, life insurance, worker’s compensation, and disability. You can find a host of resources on this field on the National Association of Health Underwriters website. 

Biotechnology, Pharmaceutical, and Medical Device Companies

Part of a physician assistant’s qualification involves carrying out thorough medical research. Due to that, they can easily find work at biotechnology, pharmaceutical, or medical device companies. You will most likely work in these companies’ research and development departments, run medical clinical trials, help create regulatory affairs, in the communications department, or help create educational material and content for the sales and marketing departments. 

There are a host of other fields that you could explore as well. These include:

  • Organizational leadership
  • Government policy creation
  • Research

The simple fact of the matter is that there are many opportunities for a qualified medical professional such as a physician assistant. In all likelihood, you can find a niche for yourself almost anywhere depending on what else you are willing to learn in addition to your medical qualifications. 

What to Look for in an Online Physician Assistant Program

If you have decided that you want a career as a physician assistant, the next step is to decide which online PA program to join. With thousands of options available, this task is much easier said than done. Here are some of the most important factors to look for in an online physician assistant program:

Non-Negotiable Qualities

No matter how you slice and dice this matter, there are simply some non-negotiable factors that will come into play and ultimately affect your choice. These often include issues such as cost and flexibility. While choosing an online program inherently means that there is an extra level of flexibility as far as time is concerned, some courses are quite as accommodating. 

For instance, what kind of teaching modalities does the program offer? Will you be required to attend online classes at a specific time, meaning that you would have to stop whatever else you are doing and log into a video conferencing class? 

In some cases, you will find that the most flexible programs often make it possible for students to interact with lecturers at a specific time virtually. They also ensure that those lessons are accessible afterward. This means that students who weren’t able to avail themselves for the live classes can catch up when they find the time. 

The Percentage of Graduates Who Pass the PANCE

Once you are done with your online PA program, you’ll have to take an exam – Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) to get certified. You need to find out what percentage of students from your potential PA programs pass this exam to give you a clear indication of how thorough the education is through that program. 

Where Will You Complete Your Clinical Rotations?

Many online programs try as much as possible to find their students’ clinical rotation placements that are convenient for the PA student. Since this is a crucial part of your education (you can’t graduate without it), you need to know exactly how this works with the specific program in question. Will they be able to find you a convenient placement as a physician’s assistant, or is it up to you?

The Percentage of Students Finding Jobs after Graduation

Granted, a PA’s job outlook is quite good; however, that isn’t a guarantee that you will find employment. For the most part, employers consider your quality of education, which usually directly implies the kind of online PA program you took. 

Besides, most programs have a working system with many medical or clinical facilities giving their students a unique opportunity for physician assistant job placements after graduation. Finding out the percentage of students who get jobs a few months after graduation gives you a clear insight into your own prospects. 

Not only is joining a trustworthy online program at a good physician assistant school a good way to kick start your career as a physician assistant, but it’s also a convenient way for PA students explore the medical science field.

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