Why one might choose to be a physician assistant rather than a medical doctor.

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By: Lorinda Zigan PA-C

I chose to write about this topic because there seems to be a misconception as to why people choose the physician assistant (PA) profession. It’s not uncommon for practicing PA’s to hear comments like these:

  • “When are you planning to go back to medical school?”
  • “You’re pretty smart for someone who couldn’t get into medical school.”
  • “Wouldn’t you rather be a real doctor?”


To apply for PA school, you have to complete to same required courses as medical school, plus a statistics course and a few additional higher level biology courses. You also are required to have 1000-3000 hours of direct patient care obtained by working as a nurse, nursing assistant, paramedic, hospital orderly, etc. Both PA and medical school require completion of entrance exams with the medical school exam (MCAT) being the most challenging. An average GPA of 3.5 or higher is recommended for both programs. Based on 2011 data, there were 3.5 applications per seat in PA school versus 2.2 applications per seat in medical school. Either way, both fields are highly competitive and it is a great achievement to get accepted into medical school or PA school.

Even though many physician assistants are trained alongside medical students and residents, the final career outcome is often very different. The decision to apply to PA school usually comes down to the time spent in school, financial burden and type of lifestyle you desire. Many people who apply to PA school work in the medical field prior so they have a good understanding of the commitment and stress involved with being a medical doctor. Working as a physician assistant can be stressful too, but you always have your supervising physician to give you their insight or to back you up when you are dealing with a difficult situation.


Lorinda Zigan, PA, sees patients at the Tri-County Health Care Verndale Clinic.

As a physician assistant you always work with a supervising physician. This means you give up some of your autonomy, but you are not a perpetual student having to come out of the room to review every case with your supervising physician. I think this can confuse patients because they may think we are still in medical school (or going there) since we are supervised. In the primary care setting, I have a lot of autonomy allowing me to create my own practice. My supervising physicians usually read a handful of my charts weekly. Often, they provide great feedback and sometimes comment they have learned something from me related to my previous experience.

Lorinda and daughter cropped

Lorinda enjoys spending time outside with her family.

So am I going back to medical school? The answer is no. I received my master’s degree in physician assistant studies from the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine in 2003. If I were to go back to medical school, I would have to re-take many of the same classes and re-do many of the same rotations. There is some talk about the development of programs to bridge PAs to medical doctors but I think that is far off and likely not for me. Of course, who knows what the future holds.

About the Author:

Lorinda Zigan lives in Browerville with her husband Scott and three children – Faith (11), Owen (9) and Skylar (2). They moved back to their home town a year and half ago and enjoy being around family and friends. They also have a Chihuahua named Foxie and a cat named Brawny who are both part of the family. The kids like to consider their free range chickens as part of the family too. Currently, Lorinda and Scott are busy juggling their oldest two children’s hockey schedule, all while chasing a feisty two-year old.