Healthcare is one of the largest, fastest-growing industries in the world, and the need for healthcare workers and providers is greater than ever. If you are considering a career in medicine, you will find yourself with many different paths and options. One of those paths is to earn a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree from an accredited medical school—such as Ross University School of Medicine (RUSM)*—and become a physician. Another path is to earn a Master of Science (MS) degree and become a physician assistant (PA). Both physicians and physician assistants are high-level medical occupations, but which is right for you?

Before you decide if you want to pursue a PA vs MD career, there are several things you will want to know about both professions. We have broken down some of the primary similarities and differences between PA vs MD to help you decide which career path would be best for you. 

Physician Assistant vs Doctor of Medicine

As you begin to research the differences between the roles of a PA vs MD, you will need to know more about each career path.

Physician Assistant

PAs are medical professionals who assess and treat patients and prescribe medication. PAs are also responsible for developing treatment plans for patients. A PA may practice in any medical specialty, but most PAs work in primary care. 

One of the biggest differences between PAs vs MDs is that PAs must work under a collaboration agreement with a physician. In the United States, each state determines a PA’s scope of practice by outlining what they are allowed and not allowed to do as a healthcare provider. Regardless of state, however, PAs are usually able to provide basic health and wellness care.

Doctor of Medicine 

Physicians with an MD undergo extensive training in allopathic medicine based on scientific evidence. MDs are responsible for comprehensive patient care and treatment management. MDs are the only medical providers who can perform specialized therapies and most surgical procedures. MDs work in all medical specialties across all patient populations. 

After completing all education and training, MDs will be licensed to practice independently. No collaborative agreements or medical oversight is required for MDs. MDs are responsible for all patient care including complex cases or treatment plans. 

Physician Assistant vs Doctor of Medicine Education and Licensing

Now that you know a little more about the differences of PAs vs MDs, you will want to know about their individual education requirements. For both careers, you will first need to complete a four-year bachelor’s degree. Be sure to look at different PA vs MD programs of interest to learn the specific science prerequisites and any relevant experience needed prior to applying.

PA programs require two or three years of graduate school to complete the appropriate MS degree. Programs include medicine-based coursework and hands-on learning via numerous clinical rotations. 

After completion of a PA program, students must pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE). Once certified, PAs can acquire state licenses and begin practicing medicine.

Most MD programs can be completed in four years. During medical school, several years are focused on learning the scientific elements of medicine and medical practice. As you advance through medical school, you will begin to have more hands-on opportunities through clinical and observational rotations. 

Medical students must pass a series of licensing exams during and following their medical school program. During and after medical school, they must take and pass all three steps of the United States Medical Licensing Examination® (USMLE®). MD preparation also extends beyond medical school. PAs can start practicing medicine following graduation, certification, and licensing, but MDs must complete three to seven years of postgraduate residency training before practicing medicine. Depending on the medical specialty or career goals, MDs may also complete further training to complete a fellowship.

Regardless of which path you take—PA vs MD—you will be required to maintain specific licensing requirements, continuing education credits, and recertifications throughout your career. 

PA vs MD Career Path 

People will always need healthcare, and due to growing populations, there is a significant deficit of healthcare providers. The Association of American Medical Colleges has long reported a physician shortage, a trend expected to worsen in coming years. Increasingly, PAs have been used to help fill the physician void.

Due to the growing needs of the healthcare world, PAs and MDs are in high demand. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has calculated a sharp increase of 31 percent in PA employment between the years 2020 and 2030**. The need and expansion of physician jobs are also trending upward.

PA vs MD Lifestyle

The lifestyles between being a PA vs MD vary. PAs traditionally have a more set schedule of 40-hour work weeks. Depending on the PA’s role within a healthcare facility or as part of a healthcare organization, the PA may additionally be required to take calls or work overtime. 

MDs, on the other hand, tend to work longer hours during the week. Physicians are also expected to take calls and can be scheduled to work nights, weekends, and holidays.

PA vs MD Pros and Cons

Before deciding whether to become a PA or MD, you must weigh the pros and cons of each degree program and career path. Some of the questions you should ask yourself include: 

  • How much time do you want to commit to school or training? 
  • What are your medical practice aspirations? 
  • What will your work/ life balance look like? 
  • How much flexibility do you want in your career?

After considering all the pros and cons, as well as answering the questions above, you should be able to determine your path to becoming a healthcare professional.  

If you want to become a practicing, independent healthcare provider, you will likely aspire to be an MD. Investigate the MD program at Ross Med, and if you’re ready to start your path to practicing medicine, apply to RUSM today!

Related Resources:

*Ross University School of Medicine is accredited by the Caribbean Accreditation Authority for Education in Medicine and other Health Professions (CAAM-HP, CAAM-HP is the legally constituted body established in 2003 under the aegis of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), empowered to determine and prescribe standards and to accredit programs of medical, dental, veterinary and other health professions education on behalf of the contracting parties in CARICOM.

Accreditation by CAAM-HP is a rigorous, peer review process which examines all aspects of a medical program. The CAAM-HP board, an independent and autonomous body of professionals, only certifies medical schools which are operating at the highest levels of industry standards.

Through this accreditation, the CAAM-HP provides assurance to medical students, graduates, the medical profession, healthcare institutions and the public that programs leading to qualifications in medicine meet appropriate national and international standards for educational quality, and that the graduates have a sufficiently complete and valid educational experience.

**  (visited September, 2021) Employment of physician assistants is projected to grow 31 percent from 2020 to 2030, much faster than the average for all occupations. Data reflects a projected percentage change in employment from 2020-2030 and may not reflect local economic conditions.

In 2020, 91% of RUSM students passed the initial step of the United States Medical Licensing Examination® (USMLE®) on the first attempt. And in 2022-2023, results show yet another strong year for RUSM with a 97% first-time residency attainment rate* thus far. Located on the island of Barbados and with a network of more than 15,000 alumni, RUSM is one of the largest providers of doctors for the U.S. healthcare system. RUSM graduates practice in all 50 states and in Puerto Rico.

*First time residency attainment rate is the percent of students attaining a 2023-24 residency position out of all graduates or expected graduates in 2022-23 who were active applicants in the 2023 NRMP match or who attained a residency position outside the NRMP match.