What is the Difference Between a Doctor and a Physician Assistant?


If you see a physician assistant (PA) rather than a medical doctor (MD) when you visit the Emergency Department of Western Maryland Health Systems (WMHS), you may feel concerned about the PA’s qualifications to treat you. Your concern is understandable since you went to the hospital with urgent concerns and want to ensure that you receive the best care.

A PA has the training to perform approximately 80 percent of the duties that an MD can perform. The leadership team of our Emergency Department evaluates each patient’s needs carefully when assigning a medical professional to assist him or her. If you received treatment from a PA, you can feel confident in that person’s experience, skills, and training related to your illness or injury. Additionally, a PA works under the direct supervision of an MD who reviews all of his or her work.

Duties that MDs and PAs Can Perform

Another major difference between an MD and a PA is that doctors can legally practice independently while a PA always requires supervision. Both can do the following:

  • Diagnose and treat patients
  • Perform medical procedures in the office
  • Prescribe medication
  • Order medical tests and interpret the results
  • Develop treatment plans based on examination and test results
  • Provide counseling on preventive healthcare strategies

If your emergency visit to WMHS results in the need for surgery, only a doctor can perform it. However, a PA can assist doctors during surgery. When it comes to medical specialties, it is easier for a PA to switch to something different than it is for an MD.

Benefits of Receiving Treatment from a PA

Some medical professionals who do not have the medical doctor credential can still practice independently. The nurse practitioner is a prime example. While receiving treatment from one provider is usually adequate, you have the benefit of two people weighing in on your care when you receive treatment from a PA. This is due to the PA’s status as a dependent practitioner. It can help you feel even more confident in your care when you know that an MD has reviewed and approved your plan for medication, surgery, physical therapy, or lifestyle changes.

When you see a PA in our Emergency Department, there is a good chance that he or she has obtained specialty certification for the medical problems you face. According to the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA), PAs receive training and certification as generalists. However, most choose to specialize in one or more areas due to the constantly changing nature of the medical landscape in the United States today. PAs also show a strong dedication to continuing research and updating their skills so they can provide patients with the best possible health outcome.

Finally, medical doctors cannot keep up with the demand of an aging population that often deals with multiple chronic health conditions. In 2016, the Association of American Medical Colleges predicted a significant shortage of MDs by 2025. PAs help to fill this gap and are doing so in ever increasing numbers. This means that patients receive faster and more thorough treatment when they visit the Emergency Department at WMHS.

Educational Differences

One of the biggest differences between a PA and an MD is the amount of time they spend pursuing their credentials. The basic requirement for each is graduating from an accredited college with a bachelor’s degree and meeting a certain grade point average (GPA) while in school. The PA then needs to complete an accredited Physician Assistant Program that takes an average of 27 months from start to finish.

The last step is to complete a clinical rotation lasting at least 12 months to gain hands-on experience treating patients. This puts the PA’s total investment in education at just over seven years. He or she is now ready to apply for licensure as a physician assistant. PA’s must take regular continuing education courses so their skills remain up-to-date. They must also take a recertification test once every five years to maintain their license.

After obtaining an undergraduate degree, the future medical doctor must attend four years of medical school. He or she will then complete a residency in one or more specialty areas for a minimum of three years and as long as seven years. Medical doctors must obtain board certification for their specialty at the national level. They also need to apply for a license in each state where they practice medicine. The time that a MD spends in college, medical school, and completing residencies to prepare for his or her career ranges from 11 to 15 years.

If you’re facing a trauma or emergency, please head to the nearest hospital. If you have any questions we can answer, please don’t hesitate to contact our Emergency Department at 240-964-1200.