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PA vs MD: A Comprehensive Comparison

Posted by Callie Torres
June 26, 2024

Physician Assistants (PAs) and Medical Doctors (MDs/DOs) are two different medical providers with differing educational backgrounds, lengths of training and scopes of practice. PAs undergo a shorter, focused educational track typically culminating in a master’s degree, allowing them to provide medical care under the supervision of MDs or DOs. Their role relies on collaborative practice in which they can utilize practical clinical skills, and practice patient-centered care across various specialties. In contrast, MDs and DOs complete a more comprehensive journey in medical education, involving rigorous training in medical school followed by residency and potential fellowship programs. This extensive training equips MDs and DOs with the ability to diagnose and treat medical conditions independently, perform surgery, and specialize in many different diverse areas of medicine, from primary care to complex subspecialties. Understanding the similarities and differences between these roles is crucial for appreciating their contributions to healthcare delivery and patient outcomes. In this article, we will compare PA versus MD, including their education, scope of practice, salary, lifestyle and more.

Quick Navigation Links + FAQs

  1. What are the differences between MD and PA?
  2. What are the differences in PA versus MD education? 
  3. How does lifestyle compare between Physician assistants compared to Medical Doctors?
  4. What are the pros and cons of Medical Doctors compared to Physician assistants?
  5. Can PAs perform the same duties as MDs in primary care?
  6. How do salaries compare between Physician assistants and Medical Doctors?
  7. What procedures can a Medical doctor do that a Physicians assistant can't do?
  8. Is PA better than MD?
  9. Can a PA become a Medical Doctor?
  10. Is a Physician assistant called Doctor?
  11. Getting started in medicine

What is the difference between a PA and MD?

The primary difference between a Physician Assistant and a Medical Doctor involves their education, which impacts their scope of practice and level of autonomy (ability to do things on their own). An MD undergoes extensive education and training, including medical school and residency, leading to full licensure to diagnose, treat, and prescribe medications independently. This educational pathway lasts at least 11 years following completion of high school. A PA, on the other hand, completes a 2 to 3 year master’s-level program and works under the supervision of an MD, with varying degrees of autonomy depending on the state’s regulations. Their educational pathway lasts at least 6 years following completion of high school. While PAs can perform many similar tasks as MDs, such as examining patients and prescribing medications, they typically do so within a collaborative practice model with oversight from a physician.

PA education compared to MD education - What's the difference?

Physician assistants and medical doctors educational paths differ significantly in terms of duration, depth, and focus. Generally, becoming a PA requires approximately 5 years less medical training than becoming a medical doctor. For this reason, the scope of medicine that PAs learn is not as in depth as that taught in medical school.

Duration: PA programs typically involve completing a master’s program that lasts about 2-3 years after earning a bachelor’s degree. In contrast, MD education requires 4 years of medical school following a bachelor’s degree, and this is then followed by 3-7 years of residency training, depending on the chosen specialty. Overall, PA education generally spans around 6-7 years post-high school, whereas MD education extends to approximately 11-15 years.

Curriculum and Depth:

  • PA programs are designed to be intensive and focused on providing practical medical training within a shorter time-frame. The curriculum includes courses in medical sciences, clinical medicine, and patient care. PA students undergo approximately 2,000 hours of clinical rotations in core areas like family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics, surgery, and emergency medicine. This training equips them to practice under physician supervision in a variety of settings.

  • MD education, on the other hand, is broader and much more in depth, encompassing two main phases: pre-clinical education and clinical rotations. The pre-clinical phase (usually the first two years of medical school) involves rigorous coursework in basic sciences such as anatomy, biochemistry, pathology, physiology, and pharmacology. The clinical phase (commonly the last two years of medical school) includes extensive hands-on patient care experiences across multiple specialties in a hospital setting. Following medical school, MD and DO graduates enter residency programs where they receive specialized training and take on increased patient care responsibilities.


Clinical Training: PA students complete clinical rotations in hospitals similar to medical students, but these rotations are shorter in duration. Medical students, receive much more extensive clinical training, allowing them to gain a deeper understanding of various medical conditions and treatments.

Scope and Autonomy: PAs are trained to work collaboratively with physicians, often in a supportive role, and their education emphasizes the development of practical skills necessary for immediate patient care. Medical doctors, however, are trained to practice independently, make complex medical decisions, and specialize in specific areas of medicine through their extensive and prolonged training.

Summary: PA education is shorter and more focused on practical skills for immediate patient care, while education for medical doctors is longer, more comprehensive, and prepares doctors for independent practice and specialization.


PA vs MD lifestyle

In general, physician assistants typically enjoy a more balanced lifestyle compared to Medical Doctors owing to a shorter and less intensive educational path, which allows them to enter the workforce sooner and with less debt. PAs generally have more predictable work hours, fewer on-call responsibilities, and less administrative burden, enabling a better work-life balance. In contrast, medical doctors undergo a more extensive training, including medical school and residency, which commonly leads to longer work hours, frequent on-call duties, and significant administrative responsibilities. While physicians often earn higher salaries and have greater autonomy in patient care, their demanding schedules and longer years of education and training can lead to a more challenging work-life balance.

PA vs MD pros and cons

Becoming a physician offers several significant advantages, including a high level of autonomy, the ability to specialize in various fields of medicine, and the potential for a higher income. MDs and DOs have comprehensive training that allows them to diagnose complex conditions, perform surgeries, and lead medical teams. This extensive training fosters deep medical expertise and positions doctors as leaders in healthcare, providing them with opportunities to engage in research, education, and policy-making. The prestige associated with being a doctor and the ability to make a substantial impact on patient outcomes can be deeply fulfilling.

However, the path to becoming an medical doctor has notable drawbacks. The journey is long and demanding, requiring 4 years of medical school followed by 3-7 years of residency training. This results in significant financial debt and a longer training time period prior entry into the workforce. The demanding nature of the job often entails long hours, frequent on-call duties, and high levels of stress, which can impact work-life balance and personal well-being. In contrast, becoming a Physician Assistant (PA) involves a shorter educational path, typically around 2-3 years of master’s-level training after obtaining a bachelor’s degree. PAs can enter the workforce more quickly, incur less debt, and often enjoy more predictable work hours and better work-life balance. However, PAs work under the supervision of doctors, which limits their autonomy, and they typically earn less than MDs. Despite these limitations, PAs play a critical role in healthcare, providing essential services and improving patient access to care, which can also be highly rewarding.

PA vs MD for primary care

Primary care can be provided by both a physician and an PA. In fact, many patient’s may not realize there is a difference when they see their primary care provider (PCP). Both physicians and PAs are trained to diagnose and treat a wide range of medical conditions, manage chronic illnesses, and provide preventive care. However, MDs have more extensive training, including medical school and residency, which can equip them with a deeper understanding of complex medical issues and allow them to handle more complex medical cases. PAs, who undergo a shorter, focused training program, work under the supervision of physicians and may need to consult with or defer to their supervising physicians for more complex cases. Despite this, PAs can manage the majority of primary care needs effectively, often providing more accessible and cost-effective care.

Physician Assistant vs Medical Doctor salary

It is important to note that there are a variety of variables that can impact salary for  both physicians and physician assistants. This includes experience, location, and specialty. In general, physicians will make more than physician assistants. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary for a PA is approximately $121,530​. PAs with entry-level experience typically earn less, around $76,700 per year, while those with one to four years of experience earn about $95,730 annually. As PAs gain more experience, their salaries increase significantly, with those having 20 or more years of experience earning an average of $162,470 per year​.

Physicians make significantly more than PAs due to the extended length or training. According to the Medscape Physician Compensation Report 2024, the average physician salary in the United States is around $352,000 per year. Primary care physicians earn an average of $265,000, while specialists can earn significantly more, with some like orthopedic surgeons making around $605,000 annually.

What can an Medical Doctor do that a Physician assistant cannot do?

A medical doctor can perform several tasks that a physician assistant cannot, primarily due to differences in training and legal regulations. MDs and DOs have the authority to practice independently, make complex medical decisions, and perform a wider range of surgical procedures without supervision. Additionally, physicians can specialize in various fields of medicine, requiring additional years of residency and fellowship training, allowing them to handle more complex and severe medical cases.  While PAs can perform many similar clinical tasks and provide excellent patient care, they must work under the supervision of an MD and have their scope of practice defined by state laws and supervising physicians. However, there are several states in the US that currently allow PAs to practice without supervision.


Is PA better than MD? H3

The question of whether a physician assistant is better than a medical doctor is subjective and depends on individual career goals, interests, and priorities. PAs typically have a shorter educational path and may enjoy more predictable work hours and a better work-life balance. They work under the supervision of medical doctors and can provide a wide range of medical care, making them valuable members of healthcare teams. On the other hand, medical doctors undergo more extensive training, including medical school and residency, allowing them to practice independently, specialize deeply in various fields of medicine, perform surgeries, and take on leadership roles in healthcare settings. The choice between PA and MD careers ultimately depends on one’s desired level of autonomy, depth of medical knowledge, career aspirations, and personal preferences for work-life balance.

Can a PA become an MD?

Yes, a physician assistant can become a medical doctor by completing additional education, including pre-medical coursework, attending medical school for four years, completing residency training in a chosen specialty, obtaining a medical license, and potentially become board certified in a specialty. This path requires dedication, significant time commitment, and meeting the rigorous academic and clinical requirements of medical school and residency. However, it offers PAs the opportunity to practice medicine independently, specialize deeply in a field, and pursue leadership roles in healthcare. While PAs may have a better medical background than the standard applicant to medical school, they still need to complete the same medical path as any pre-medical student.

Is a PA still called doctor?

No, a physician assistant is not typically addressed as “doctor.” While PAs have a master’s degree and are licensed healthcare providers who diagnose illnesses, develop treatment plans, and prescribe medications under the supervision of a physician, they do not hold a doctoral degree. Instead, they are commonly addressed as physician Assistant, PA, or by their first name in clinical settings.

Getting started in medicine

Now that you have information about the differences and similarities between Physician assistants and Medical Doctors, you may have decided that getting your MD is the right path for you. If so, and you want to attend a great med school like UMHS, please check out our FAQ page for more information. To apply to our accredited school, click this link

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Posted by Callie Torres

Callie Torres is a resident physician working at a top tier institute in the Midwest. She is a freelance health and medical writer as well as an author of many peer reviewed medical articles. She additionally serves as a Captain in the United States Air Force.

Topics: Feature Medical Practice

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