Review some of 2020’s best online PA programs, read through curriculum details, and learn why both school and program accreditation matters. Take your first steps toward a career as a physician assistant.
Written By Kenya McCullum
Elizabeth Provanzana is a licensed physician assistant with a multi-specialty background. Having earned a Bachelor of Health Sciences and a Master of Physician Assistant Sciences from St. Francis University, she has 13 years of experience in clinical medicine in areas of general, vascular, thoracic, gynecology, obstetrics, neurosurgical, orthopedic, and urological surgery.
Last Updated: 09/04/2020 ——
Physician assistants are required to obtain a great deal of hands-on training in order to be effective in their careers. As a result, some people interested in pursuing this field may be reluctant to enroll in an online degree program because they fear they won’t be able to develop the vital skills they need. However, that is not the case: Online physician assistant programs are made up of didactic portions that can be conducted via the Internet, as well as intensive hands-on training that is delivered on campus and through local health care facilities. As a result, students are able to gain an understanding of the theoretical concepts of the field, and then put those theories into practice.
There are numerous benefits for students to enroll in online physician assistant programs, including the following:
Instead of being locked into a strict schedule, those who enroll in online programs get more freedom than their on-campus counterparts. When students enroll in asynchronous programs, they get the opportunity to work at their own pace and watch lectures at a time that’s right for them, rather than a scheduled class period. This flexibility makes it easier for students to juggle their education with other responsibilities.
Depending on the program, online physician assistant students may be charged by the credit for their tuition and fees, which can help keep costs down. Also, schools may offer scholarships to help defray the cost of tuition.
A personal pace
Just as they may have more freedom with lectures, online students may also have greater flexibility with assignments and tests, depending on the program. As a result, students may not be required to complete work on a set schedule, which allows them to work through material at their own pace.
To work as a PA, you generally need to earn a master’s or doctoral degree, depending on your career goals. As with other disciplines, the higher the degree level, the more complicated the coursework becomes and the longer it takes for students to complete. The following is a look at what students can expect when they enroll in these degree programs.
Physician assistant master’s degrees, which generally take about two-and-a-half years to complete, are designed to teach students how to perform specific medical duties, such as providing physical examinations, performing diagnostic tests, and creating a care plan. In order to get accepted into these degree programs, prospective students are expected to complete a number of prerequisites, such as coursework in biology, physiology, statistics, and psychology. In addition, depending on the program, students may be required to complete the GRE and have previous patient care experience, including work as a registered nurse, emergency room technician, or paramedic.
Once enrolled in these programs, students take coursework that builds on their previous education and work skills, such as classes in health care policy and ethics, epidemiology, and multicultural medicine. After taking these courses, which can be completed online, students are required to participate in a residency in order to gain the clinical skills they need to practice.
Practicing physician assistants who aspire to become decision makers, educators, and scholars in the field can enroll in doctoral degree programs to reach these goals. In some cases, these programs are designed to train students to deliver advanced care in a health care specialty like neurology, primary care medicine, and infectious disease. Other programs focus on leadership or education and may include classes about health care policy and law, human resource management, and organizational behavior. These programs, which are about three years long, may also require that students complete clinical work designed to sharpen their advanced skills or a capstone project where they demonstrate their understanding of the program’s curriculum.
To gain admission to a doctoral program, applicants should have a physician assistant master’s degree, a 3.0 minimum grade point average, and an active physician assistant license. In addition, prospective students may be required to have a certain amount of professional experience in order to enter the program and will generally have to participate in an admissions interview.
What to Look for in an Online Physician Assistant Program
Every student has different educational needs and career goals, so it’s imperative that they find an online physician assistant program that is the right fit. No matter what students are looking for, the following are some of the most important considerations they should keep in mind when evaluating schools.
Accreditation: In order to ensure that students are getting the high-quality training they need to enter the field, they should choose a school that has been accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). During the accreditation process, the ARC-PA evaluates the curriculum of programs, as well as the faculty and staff, to ensure the school offers education that meets industry standards.
High PANCE pass rates: In order to become certified, physician assistant graduates are required to pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE). To ensure that programs are providing the training they need to get their certification, students should inquire about pass rates and only consider schools with high ones. Prospective students can generally find this information on a school’s website, and they can also discuss it if they have an interview.
Program flexibility: Depending on students’ other responsibilities, they may need to find a program that is flexible enough to fit well into their lifestyle. In order to be successful in their studies, students should enroll in a school that allows them to complete coursework around their job schedule.
Program length: Some programs take longer than others, so students who want to begin their careers quickly may look for a more intensive program that takes less time to complete. Generally, it takes two to three years to complete the didactic and clinical requirements.
Physician assistants are an integral part of the medical community. They work alongside doctors and other health care professionals to provide quality hands-on services to patients. In order to help prospective physician assistants find the school that will meet their education and career needs, EduMed has created the Best in Class initiative, a list of the highest-quality degree programs around the country that we chose based on factors such as curriculum and affordability. Below are the standout schools for 2020.
The 100% online Master of Physician Assistant Studies (MPAS) bridge program from UTRGV allows practicing PAs with a previously-earned bachelor’s degree to earn their MPAS while continuing their professional employment throughout the course of study. The curriculum consists of three bridge clinical track courses that are designed to augment and update the student’s clinical knowledge and skills. These three courses are followed by a culminating bridge research project in which the student researches and writes a paper on a topic of relevance to clinical medicine. The bridge program can be completed in one semester with students working on two courses at a time.
Pace University’s Physician Assistant Master’s Degree Completion program is presented in a four semester format (spring, two semesters during one summer, and fall) and completed in 12 months of part-time study. Topics covered in the curriculum include epidemiology, evidence-based medicine, research methods, health promotion, and leadership. This non-thesis program culminates with completion of a Research Methods/Master Project in which the student produces a written paper that meets the standards required for a peer-reviewed professional journal. All coursework is presented online in an asynchronous format. Students need never come to the Pace campus. Admission requirements include a previously-earned physician assistant BS degree or PA studies certificate plus bachelor’s degree in another major. Applicants must also provide documentation of 3,600 hours of post-baccalaureate clinical experience.
Physician Assistant Master’s Degree Completion
Credits: 12 (not including 18 credits awarded for 3600 hours of post-baccalaureate clinical experience)
Length: 12 months
Cost: $10,760 (est. total program cost)
Mode: Fully online
Accreditation: MSCHE (school); ARC-PA (school)
Students w/ Institutional Aid95%
AccreditationMiddle States Commission on Higher Education
The University of Maryland, Baltimore offers an online Master of Science in Health Science with Physician Assistant Concentration through a joint program with Ann Arundel Community College. Students in the program earn 86 credit hours through on-campus AACC courses and in-person clinical experiences (1,620 clinical hours) offered as part of AACC’s Physician Assistant Certificate program. An additional 30 credit hours in fully-online coursework are earned through UMB. Students are concurrently enrolled in both schools during the course of their studies, and graduates of the program receive both an MS in Health Science from UMB and a Certificate of Physician Assistant Studies from AACC. The entire program is designed to be completed in as little as 25 months of full-time study.
MS in Health Science with Physician Assistant Concentration
The University of Nebraska Medical Center offers a Master of Physician Assistant Studies (MPAS) program with a degree advancement option that allows practicing PAs with a bachelor’s degree to earn their master’s without any need to travel to the school’s campus. Students complete a set of five didactic core courses and five courses in either the Clinical Track or Education Track. All didactic coursework is presented entirely online, although students are required to document a substantial number of practice hours (800 for Clinical Track, 320 for Education Track) at their current places of employment as part of their track curriculum. The entire program is designed to be completed in as little as five semesters, but students may take up to five years to complete all degree requirements.
There are both master and doctorate degree options for physician assistants available from A.T. Still University’s Arizona School of Health Sciences. The Master of Science in Advanced Physician Assistant Studies program allows practicing PAs to continue their professional practices while pursuing their master’s degree through 100% online coursework. Students choose between two curriculum concentration tracks: Clinical Medicine; and Education and Leadership. The Clinical Medicine track requires 400 clinical hours of documented direct patient care at the student’s current place of employment. ATSU’s Doctor of Medical Science (DMSc) program is designed specifically for practicing PAs and can be completed entirely online with no on-site clinical residency requirements. The DMSc program is offered with concentration tracks in Education and Leadership.
MS in Advanced Physician Assistant Studies
Length: 12 to 24 months
Mode: Fully online
Accreditation: HLC (school); ARC-PA (program)
Doctor of Medical Science (DMSc)
Length: 24 months
Mode: Fully online
Accreditation: HLC (school)
Students w/ Institutional Aid0%
AccreditationHigher Learning Commission
Yale University’s School of Medicine offers an online Master of Medical Science (MMSc) degree program to prepare students to provide patient-focused care. Students complete coursework through the Yale PA Online campus, which allows them to attend small, live classes that have the same intimate learning environment they would experience in a traditional program. In addition, students can access recorded lectures and case studies through the system, as well as track assignments and communicate with professors and classmates. During this portion of the program, students take courses in behavioral and preventive medicine, hematology, gastroenterology, and patient assessment.
In addition to online classes, students participate in clinical rotations at health care facilities, which provide a deeper understanding of the didactic principles they previously learned. Also, students are required to complete three one-week immersions at the Yale campus where they attend lectures, gain laboratory experience, and get to know their peers and instructors.
In order to
be admitted into Yale University’s physician assistant program,
prospective students must meet the following qualifications:
Have at least a 2.8
cumulative grade point average in a bachelor’s degree program and
a 3.0 average in science courses
Completed the GRE
within the last five years
courses in biochemistry, statistics, physiology, microbiology,
genetics, and anatomy
In addition, the school recommends that students also have at least six months of full-time work experience in the health care field or 1,000 hours providing patient care as an EMT, paramedic, medical assistant, or registered nurse.
As of February 2019, the total tuition and fees that students pay are $68,989 for the first year, $70,582 for the second, and $23,261 for the third year of the program.
University of Wisconsin – Madison
Since 1974, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has trained physician assistants to deliver comprehensive health care services to diverse communities with the sensitivity and knowledge that patients deserve. In order to do that, the school provides one year of didactic education and then one year of clinical rotations for those enrolled full time, or two years of didactic courses and one year of clinical training to those who are part-time students. During the didactic portion of the program, students learn the fundamental principles of clinical medicine by taking coursework about pharmacology, genetics, physiology, and disease. Once this portion of the program is complete, students will have clinical rotations in emergency, family, surgical, and internal medicine settings to apply what they previously learned to real-world care.
In order to be admitted to this program, prospective students are expected to complete prerequisite courses in microbiology, statistics, biochemistry, psychology, human anatomy physiology, and mammalian biology. Also, applicants should have at least a 3.20 grade point average in their undergraduate coursework, and 1,000 hours of patient care experience.
In early 2019, the rate for tuition and fees at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was $68,214.36 for state residents and $98,430.36 for non-residents.
Core Physician Assistant Knowledge & Skills
The specific skills and knowledge that students get from a physician assistant degree program depends on the degree level they choose. In some cases, students can get the skills they need while taking online courses, while other abilities can only be acquired during the program’s hands-on training. The following are examples of some of the skills that physician assistants can learn during the online component of their program.
Physician assistants are required to prescribe medications to patients, so they take coursework in pharmacology to learn about the different types of drugs available, when they are appropriate to use, and the positive and negative effects they have on patients. This course may focus on drugs that are used to treat psychiatric, oncologic, endocrinologic, and neurologic health issues.
Students who want to become researchers should know about the mechanics of conducting studies that will expand the knowledge base of the physician assisting field. Research methods courses cover how to construct and execute a study, interpret data, and report on findings.
Understanding diagnostic tests
Physician assistants administer, order, and interpret diagnostic tests in order to provide the correct treatments to patients. As a result, coursework in physician assistant programs may cover how to work with blood tests, X-rays, and electrocardiograms.
students have acquired skills during their online didactic
coursework, they go on to clinical experiences where they reinforce
those abilities and gain new ones. The following are examples of some
of those skills.
Communicating with patients and families
Physician assistants need to know how to talk to patients about their health problems, as well as communicate with families. In order to hone this skill, students need to work in simulated settings, as well as with real patients in clinical settings.
Performing therapeutic procedures
Hands-on experience is needed in order to teach future physician assistants how to perform therapeutic procedures. This can include taking care of wounds, giving injections, and managing infections.
Professionals regularly examine patients to find out what their medical problems are and determine how they should be addressed. The clinical training in physician assistant programs allows students to apply the care principles they learned in their online courses to real patients.
One important consideration that students generally have is how they will pay for their education, and they may make their school choice based on the financial aid that’s available to them. The following are some of the options students have.
Students who need additional funds for college after winning scholarships may take out loans to help pay for their tuition. Graduate students are eligible to receive federal loans, as well as loans that are offered through their school.
Career Growth, Salary & Outlook for Physician Assistants
This is a good time for people to enter the physician assistant field because the job opportunities are expected to increase in the coming years thanks to the older generations’ increased need for health care services. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 2016 and 2026, there will be 37 percent job growth in the industry, or 39,600 new positions. This job growth is similar to other health-related professions. For example:
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for physician assistants is $101,480 per year. In addition, those who are the top earners of the field make $142,210 annually and the lowest earners make $65,620.
What Are the Career Advancement Opportunities for Physician Assistants?
Physician assistants can work in a variety of settings, including doctor’s offices, surgical centers, government agencies, hospitals, and phone triage centers. No matter where they choose to work, professionals can advance in their careers by earning a Certificate of Added Qualifications (CAQ) credential through the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants. This designation allows professionals to leverage their specialized knowledge and skills in a specific area of the field to advance in their careers, open up more job opportunities, and command higher salaries.