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Should I apply to PA school or medical school?

I'm a senior in college now, and I'm just finishing up my pre-med courses. After I graduate, I am planning on taking a gap year. If I want to go to medical school after the gap year, I should plan on taking the MCAT in the coming months and apply in May. I don't know why, but I'm having such a hard time figuring out if I want to go to PA School or medical school (MD/DO). I'm serious about my education and want to be extremely knowledgeable if I ever have patients/become a physician. That being said, I don't know if four years of medical school on top of a gap year is something that I will regret. Also, I don't have any research experience/shadowing experience right now, so I wouldn't even be able to put that on an application (or could I, if I was planning on doing these things during my gap year?) So should I become a PA? Those who chose the medical path instead of PA, can you explain how you came to that decision? And those who chose PA school rather than going to MD/DO, what led you to that decision? Do you wish you had autonomy/is it a burden to not get the final say in decisions? #medical-school #doctor #physician-assistant #pa #medicine


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James’s Answer

hi ellie. i've been a family physician for 20+ years. in that time i've worked with numerous types of health professionals, including PAs & NPs, in many different situations.

the short answer to your question: if you're in any way unsure about going to medical school then you're setting yourself up for failure and should try something else.

maybe the problem is, as you confessed, just the lack of experience. maybe doing more medical activities in that gap year would give you more certainty. maybe not. i absolutely love dr patz's idea above about doing medical scribe work. it's an unparalled way to earn valuable experience and insight into the medical profession.

it's so true that PAs and NPs have become ubiquitous in almost all aspects of medicine. they have virtually the same spectrum of job opportunities that medical doctors have. in your situation, and for simplicity's sake, i would think of PAs and NPs as a tiny bit "less." less responsibility, less authority, less respect, less salary, less debt. some things you can't say would be less intelligent or even less educated. i've met many who were so good that i wouldn't hesitate to entrust them with the care of a family member.

i wish i could tell you something about the path to becoming a PA or NP. but all i know is how difficult medical school & training was. it broke several of my classmates despite their solid credentials and background.

one question you asked that i can answer though is about how i decided on medical school. a lot of factors went into my decision but one item in your intro caught my attention: you haven't taken the MCAT. doing well on that exam helped steer me toward medical school over law school. thinking back now, if that score had been poor or even average i think i would be somewhere entirely different right now. maybe that could be the clincher you're looking for. just throwing that out as one possible option.

good luck!

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John’s Answer

I was a PA for five years before I went to medical school. That was long ago (1979). The PA profession was new and its future was uncertain. Now PA's and NP's are everywhere. They are well established and respected.

It sort of depends on what you hope to do. As a PA you will be given plenty of responsibility, but little authority. As a rural primary care PA, I found myself really not trained for some of the care I was asked to provide. That led me to going to med school. I went to a DO school.

My observation is that mid levels in specialty practices are often given tasks of screeining and follow up.

I suggest to try to get a job as a medical scribe. That's a fairly new thing. You are with a provider while they see patients aand do the documentation as the visit progresses. A lot of people doing this want to go to med school. It's great chance to be a vouyer as to what goes on in real life medicine.


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Yasemin’s Answer

Hi Ellie! I completely understand the difficulty of choosing either path. One my best friends since elementary school just finished up PA school and she's in pediatrics, I plan to go to medical school and hopefully specialize in pediatrics as well. A PA is very important to the medical profession, and can help take care of patients in many ways. I once went to an ER and was cared for by a PA; in addition with more and more physicians specializing in different areas of medicine, primary care physicians are in short supply and PA's are taking their roles. As in the name a Physician Assistant works alongside a physician in patient care but the main difference is that a physician can have more responsibility in their patient care with final say. So physicians do have a little bit more leadership and responsibility to make accurate decisions in their patient's diagnosis. However PA's also share this responsibility with diagnosis and treatments. PA schools are shorter but they do also learn much and it does have different requirements. Below are two links provided to give more details about these different paths.

In answering the gap year, I would recommend to get some shadowing hours in your gap year. Many students take gap years and strengthen their application, also shadowing a physician is highly recommend for premed students as it will allow you to have more experience in the daily life of a physician. I think if you shadow a physician and get more experience in this aspect you may feel more decisive in picking out a path. I don't think you will regret the time it takes to being a physician if you truly love this field. Many students do struggle or take gap years and spend time being a physician so don't let that discourage you. In terms of possibly picking out the path of a PA, you could shadow a PA and get more experience as well. I would also recommend non-clinical volunteering such as community service and also patient volunteering in a local clinic or nearby hospital. Right now with COVID the situation to volunteer and shadow is difficult so for now I would stick to doing well on your MCAT in addition to keeping your opportunities open so that when the situation gets better you will be able to gain some experience. Keep working hard and take time, in the end it is important about choosing the field you love and feel comfortable in! I hope someone with PA experience can also comment and you can get more insight!

I wish you the best!

Yasemin recommends the following next steps:

https://www.globalpremeds.com/blog/2013/10/16/what-is-the-difference-between-a-doctor-and-a-physicians-assistant/
https://www.petersons.com/blog/how-to-become-a-physician-assistant/

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