One of the most frequently asked questions, by both PA students and undergraduates alike is:
Are you happy being a PA a.k.a. do you regret becoming a PA?
The root of this question, almost always, leads back to autonomy. I do not want you to think of it as a competition between PA vs NP vs MD/DO. If complete autonomy is what you are looking for, then of course, you will have more of a chance achieving this by becoming a physician. However, as a PA there are many opportunities to be completely autonomous, especially in rural areas. If it is respect you are looking for, you will find it; the title isn’t what commands respect, but rather the way you practice the art of medicine is. There are certain things you MUST wrap your head around that hold true; one of those being the notion that you will not be able to handle the “complicated” cases. But, in my opinion, it should be this way (at least in the beginning).
See, as a PA you have one year for didactics and one year for clinical rotations. Physicians, on the other hand, go through 4 years of medical school, a minimum of 3 years in residency (depending on the specialty), and some will even specialize further in the form of a fellowship. Now, I must admit, I do not feel you need 7 years of training to handle the majority of problems that walk into a family practice. This has also been recognized by many others, which has shifted some medical schools into a 3 year program, for those going into primary care. In MY opinion, I feel that the physician assistant will be proficient at handling the majority of complaints that walk into a family practice setting after one year of practice. This is not a universal rule, but rather a drastic generalization. A lot of factors come into play for this generalization, such as: ease of comprehension, communication skills, hours worked, amount of autonomy given to you, etc.
The problem arises when you enter a specialty, or a “complicated” situation. The average physician assistant just does not have the knowledge base to jump right into a specialty, with the expectation to operate like a physician. Physicians spend over 7 years, minimum, trying to master all that there is to master within their own specialty. Most do not even feel comfortable handling certain situations for a year or two out of residency. Even after residency, the fellowship, whatever it may be, the learning will continue.
The medical profession as a whole is unique, in that you will NEVER master all of the content. The amount of information that is required from medical students, physician assistants, and nurse practioners, is unlike anything seen before. This speaks volumes to our profession. We are EXPECTED to be as proficient as a family practice physician (who has gone to school for 7 years), with only two years of training.
You shouldn’t feel overwhelmed by what I am saying, but rather, you should feel proud. The amount of knowledge you will retain over your two year journey is unlike anything anyone has ever done. We have never experienced anything close to what we are currently experiencing. The amount of discovery and innovation has never been presented to students as it is being presented today. But, as I stated earlier, do not expect to handle complicated cases without involving your supervising physician. To be quite honest, you shouldn’t want to. The physician, physician assistant, and nurse practitioner should know their limits. You must realize what you do, and do not know. If doing more is what you are interested in, then I urge you to apply for a residency. A residency will expose you to more than you could ever be exposed to in one year of clinical practice. Like I said before, it is not the title, but rather the experience that will command respect. Physicians spend 7 years gaining experience. It would be a little arrogant of our profession, to say that we are exactly on par with a physician after two years. But, realize, the majority of what comes into family practice, does not require 7 years of training.
I say all of that to say, that in the grand scheme of things, the title does not matter. If you are invested to practicing medicine, you WILL make a difference. The journey you have chosen is a lifelong path that is nothing short of amazing.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Do you think becoming a PA will make you happy?