The distinction between a Physician Assistant (PA) and a doctor in healthcare extends beyond mere titles. It reflects a fundamental difference in their roles and responsibilities. Although PAs receive comprehensive training and work in collaboration with physicians, they have different levels of education, scope of practice, and responsibilities.

Read on as we explore the details of the PA vs doctor paradigm and examine the unique roles each professional plays in the healthcare field.

What Is a Physician Assistant?

A Physician Assistant, commonly abbreviated as PA, is a healthcare professional practicing medicine under the supervision of a licensed physician.

These professionals are trained to perform various clinical tasks and work in multiple medical settings. They operate closely with physicians to provide comprehensive patient care and are highly valued for their versatility across different medical specialties, making significant contributions to the healthcare team.

What Is a Doctor?

A doctor, also known as a physician, is a highly trained and licensed healthcare professional with expertise in the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of diseases and injuries. There are two primary types of doctors: Medical Doctors (MDs) and Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine (DOs). 

Both types of doctors undergo rigorous education and training, including medical school and residency, but they differ in terms of philosophy and approach. MDs are traditionally associated with allopathic medicine and focus on diagnosing and treating diseases using medication, surgery, and other conventional methods. On the other hand, DOs emphasize a holistic approach to patient care, considering the interconnectedness of the body’s systems and placing importance on preventive care.

What Does a Physician Assistant Do?

As suggested by their title, physician assistants’ primary duty is to assist physicians. They perform physical examinations, gather medical histories, and order and interpret diagnostic tests. They diagnose and treat prevalent illnesses and injuries, prescribe medications, and develop treatment plans, but typically do so under the supervision of doctors.

In surgical settings, PAs assist during procedures and surgeries. Their collaborative nature allows them to work closely with different healthcare professionals, nurses, and physicians, to provide comprehensive and accessible healthcare services.

PAs often act as a bridge between patients and physicians, enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of healthcare delivery.

What Does a Doctor Do?

Doctors take care of their patients’ overall health. Their duties include diagnosing medical conditions, prescribing appropriate treatments, and performing surgical procedures when necessary. Doctors also educate patients on preventive healthcare measures, promoting overall well-being.

They may specialize in internal medicine, surgery, psychiatry, or pediatrics, allowing them to focus on specific patient populations or medical conditions. In addition to direct patient care, doctors often engage in medical research, contribute to advancements in healthcare, and teach and mentor medical students and residents.

The role of a doctor is central to the healthcare system, encompassing a broad spectrum of responsibilities aimed at maintaining and improving the health of individuals and communities.


The Difference Between a PA and Doctor

PAs and doctors play vital roles within the healthcare community, united by a shared commitment to improving the well-being of individuals through medical care. However, these healthcare professionals diverge in several key areas. To better understand the difference between a PA and doctor, we will directly compare the two. 

Let’s analyze the educational paths required for each role, explore the specialization options available, examine their work environments, and consider salary and job outlook differences. This way, we can appreciate the unique contributions in healthcare while recognizing the differences that shape their respective practices and roles within the medical field.


The educational paths of PAs and doctors require rigorous training and a commitment to lifelong learning. However, key differences emerge in the duration and depth of education. To comprehend these distinctions, you must understand how to become a physician assistant and how to become a doctor.

Aspiring PAs typically begin their journey by obtaining a bachelor’s degree, with majors in healthcare-related fields. Once the foundational requirements are met, individuals enroll in an accredited PA program, which includes both didactic and clinical phases. After completion, graduates must also pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE), obtain state licensure, and maintain certification through continuing medical education to ensure they remain well-versed in evolving medical practices. 

Aspiring doctors also begin their educational journey by obtaining a bachelor’s degree, focusing on prerequisite courses, as well as preparing for and taking the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). Once they successfully complete these steps, they can apply to accredited medical schools. After medical school, doctors must pass all  United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) steps and complete a residency lasting 3 to 7 years, depending on the specialty. Board certification, state licensure, and ongoing participation in continuing medical education ensure doctors remain proficient and updated in their medical practice throughout their careers.

So, PAs undergo a shorter and more focused educational path, typically requiring a master’s degree, emphasizing practical skills and collaboration. On the other hand, doctors have a more extensive and specialized educational journey, including medical school and residency, focusing on in-depth medical knowledge and the ability to practice independently in their chosen specialties.


PAs and doctors both have a range of specialization options within the medical field. For instance, PAs may choose specialties like orthopedics or dermatology, while doctors can specialize in cardiology, neurology, or pediatrics.

Generally, there is a considerable overlap in specializations, particularly in areas where collaborative care is prominent. Both PAs and doctors can work in primary care, internal medicine, emergency medicine, and surgery, among other fields. However, the extent of their responsibilities and the depth of their involvement in patient care may vary.

PAs possess flexibility in transitioning between specialties through additional education or training. In contrast, doctors’ specializations are deeply entrenched in their chosen fields, often requiring more prolonged and dedicated training periods. Additionally, subspecialties demanding independent practice and leadership roles, like interventional cardiology or neurology, are typically reserved for doctors who undergo advanced education and training for these positions. 

Work Environments

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), most PAs, constituting 52%, are employed in physicians’ offices, actively contributing to patient care alongside medical professionals. State and private hospitals account for another significant portion at 24%, reflecting PAs’ involvement in diverse medical specialties within inpatient settings. Additionally, PAs can be found in outpatient care centers, academic settings, and government healthcare services. This distribution highlights the adaptability of PAs across various healthcare environments, demonstrating their versatility in meeting the evolving needs of the healthcare landscape.

Physicians also operate in a diverse array of clinical and nonclinical settings. Clinical environments encompass physicians’ offices and hospitals, including academic hospitals affiliated with residency programs or medical schools. Beyond clinical practice, doctors contribute their expertise in nonclinical settings such as government agencies, where they may be involved in health policy development or public health initiatives. Nonprofit organizations provide another avenue for doctors to address societal health needs, while their involvement with insurance companies may extend to roles in healthcare administration and policy implementation. This dual presence in both clinical and nonclinical areas highlights the broad impact of doctors on healthcare delivery, research, and public health.

However, PAs and doctors frequently collaborate, recognizing the value of a team-based approach in delivering optimal patient care. Hospitals, particularly in emergency departments and surgical suites, provide fertile ground for joint efforts. Primary care clinics and urgent care centers are additional arenas where both professions collaborate seamlessly. So, while both PAs and doctors can function autonomously in specific contexts, the synergy between their roles is most evident in environments where a combined approach enriches the quality of healthcare provided.


The salary prospects for physician assistants and physicians reflect their roles and education differences. While PAs provide valuable support in patient care, physicians, with their advanced training, assume greater responsibility, impacting their overall compensation.

So, the median annual wage for PAs is $126,010, with the lowest 10 percent earning less than $83,820 and the highest 10 percent surpassing $168,120. In contrast, physicians command a higher median annual wage of $229,300, with the lowest 10 percent earning less than $65,620 and the highest 10 percent exceeding $239,200. 

It’s worth noting that the salary prospects for both PAs and physicians are significantly influenced by specialization, with certain medical specialties potentially correlating with higher earnings. 

Job Outlooks

In terms of job outlook, PAs have a more favorable projection compared to physicians. The employment of physician assistants is anticipated to grow significantly, with a projected 27 percent increase from 2022 to 2032. This growth rate is much faster than the average for all occupations, and is attributed to the expanding healthcare needs of a growing and aging population, coupled with an increased emphasis on team-based care. On average, about 12,200 job openings for physician assistants are expected each year over the decade.

In contrast, the overall employment of physicians and surgeons is expected to grow at a slower pace, with a 3 percent increase from 2022 to 2032, aligning with the average growth rate for all occupations. While the demand for healthcare services remains strong, the growth rate for physicians is more modest. On average, about 24,200 job openings for physicians and surgeons are projected annually over the decade.

Physician Assistant vs. Doctor: Which Role Is Right for You?

Choosing between a career as a physician assistant or a doctor is a significant decision that requires careful consideration of personal preferences, lifestyle factors, and career goals. The PA role might be a better fit for individuals seeking faster entry into patient care, collaboration within a healthcare team, and the ability to adapt to different specialties. On the other hand, the qualities of physicians, with their rigorous education and training, may appeal to those who prefer the autonomy that comes with independent practice.

It’s essential to assess individual priorities, considering the level of responsibility desired, the time commitment for education and training, and the type of patient care environment that aligns with one’s aspirations. Ultimately, deciding between becoming a PA or a doctor should align with one’s passion for patient care, professional ambitions, and the lifestyle that best suits their needs.

The Bottom Line

All in all, both PAs and doctors play crucial roles, contributing to patient care, medical innovation, and the overall well-being of communities. While PAs may excel in adaptability and efficient entry into patient care, doctors lead in clinical decision-making with their in-depth medical knowledge and autonomy. Regardless of the chosen path, both professions are indispensable components of a healthcare system that thrives on collaboration, expertise, and a shared commitment to advancing the health and wellness of people and communities alike.

Align your passion for patient care with a fulfilling and impactful career as a doctor or PA, and know that you’ll help advance the health and wellness of individuals and communities.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs):

Is a PA as good as a doctor?

PAs are skilled healthcare professionals, but the comparison with doctors depends on the context and specific healthcare needs since they have different roles and levels of training. Overall, while PAs provide valuable healthcare services under the supervision of a physician, they do not have the same depth of medical education as doctors. 

How much autonomy do PAs have?

The autonomy of physician assistants varies based on state regulations and the supervising physician’s comfort level. Generally, they can perform a wide range of medical tasks, prescribe medications, and make clinical decisions, but the extent of autonomy is determined by the collaborative relationship with their supervising physician.