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The main difference between a doctor’s assistant (also known as a physician assistant) and a medical assistant is in their job responsibilities. A physician assistant works under the direct supervision of a doctor to diagnose and treat patients. A medical assistant performs a variety of supporting clinical and administrative duties in the medical office.
Physician assistants diagnose and treat patients with the approval of a supervising physician. A medical assistant may help prepare patients and rooms for clinical procedures, take vital signs, and assist during the procedure if requested. However, they are not responsible for directing procedures or diagnosing any patients.
Medical assistants keep the physician’s office running smoothly as well. They help maintain patients’ records, schedule appointments, arrange laboratory services or tests, authorize prescription refills (with a doctor’s permission), bill insurance and assist patients while they wait for their appointments. Physician assistants focus most of their energy on diagnosing, treating and educating patients.
Medical assistants can go through a one- or two-year training program to earn their certifications. They do not need a college degree to enter these programs. They may also be trained on the job, although they can earn a higher salary if they are certified after completing an accredited certificate or associate degree training program. A physician assistant, on the other hand, usually has at least a bachelor’s degree before she enters a two-year, full-time training program. However, entrance requirements differ from school to school. A physician assistant student also often has medical field experience before she enrolls in the program. These programs usually result in a master’s degree, although some offer bachelor’s or associate degrees or certificates. She must also sit for a licensing exam upon graduation from the program and take continuing education hours to maintain her license.
Medical assistants earn much lower salaries than physician assistants. They have fewer responsibilities in diagnosing and treating patients. The average income of a medical assistant as of 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is $29,450, and the average salary of a physician assistant is $84,830.
Leyla Norman has been a writer since 2008 and is a certified English as a second language teacher. She also has a master's degree in development studies and a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology.