How to become a physician associate in 9 steps (plus tips)

Updated 4 September 2023

The role of physician associate is a practical career for individuals looking to work in patient care. Working directly with patients, providing diagnoses and reducing the strain placed on doctors are all critical priorities for physician associates. If you're considering a career in medicine, a physician associate job can provide regular hours and the opportunity to support various patients in maintaining health and resolving medical problems. In this article, we explore how to become a physician associate, plus tips for finding a job in this field.

What is a physician associate?

Physician associates are medical professionals who work in GP surgeries and hospitals, directly helping patients under the supervision of a doctor. As a physician associate, you work one-on-one with individual patients, taking histories, performing examinations and diagnosing conditions that don't require the direct intervention of a doctor. Physician associates work on an appointment basis in doctor's surgeries like doctors and nurse practitioners, though some also work in hospitals and emergency medicine.

Physician associates may have training for the role as existing healthcare professionals, gain a qualification through a level seven apprenticeship or take the traditional educational route through bioscience-related degrees and specialist programmes. Once trained, a physician associate can support doctors in numerous ways, including developing management and care plans, promoting health and disease prevention in patients and caring for patients at clinics with long-term health concerns.

Related: Physician associate job profile: complete guide

How to become a physician associate

Here's how to become a physician associate in nine steps:

1. Achieve the necessary GCSE grades

Good grades in GCSE maths, science and English are necessary for each pathway to becoming a physician associate. Science is particularly essential, as completing relevant bioscience-related A-levels is a crucial foundation to achieving a place in a relevant degree. Ensuring you achieve passing marks or complete equivalent GCSE qualifications provides a solid groundwork for a future career as a physician associate.

2. Complete bioscience-related A-levels

Completing A-levels or equivalent qualifications in science-related subjects is integral to continuing to a health or life science degree. A minimum of three A-level is typically the entry point for training as a physician association, with science subjects most valued for university applications. For example, completing A-levels in chemistry and biology with an A or B grade is necessary to apply to many healthcare and life science degrees successfully.

3. Apply for a health or life science degree

Applying for a relevant degree in the healthcare or life sciences is the next step in becoming a physician associate. While the specialist training you cover to qualify is at a postgraduate level, undergraduate knowledge provides the opportunity to gain practical skills. Many universities include placements in health-related degrees or may connect you with volunteering opportunities, allowing you to gain experience in suitable environments. Some of the undergraduate degrees you could consider include occupational therapy, physiotherapy, paramedic science, anatomy, biochemistry, biomedical science, physiology, human biology, medical science or nursing.

Related: What are the most popular undergraduate healthcare degrees?

4. Decide whether to apply for an apprenticeship

A physician associate degree apprenticeship is a viable option for graduates to gain real-world experience while working towards their diploma. As an increasingly common option, level seven apprenticeships allow students to develop their skills over two to three years while allowing them to earn money. If you prefer hands-on learning over a traditional academic route applying for an apprenticeship may provide the chance to improve your skills in the field.

Related: How to write a PA school CV (with template and example)

5. Study for a postgraduate physician associate diploma

Following your degree, a two-year postgraduate physician associate diploma provides the knowledge and skills you require to become a qualified physician associate. This full-time qualification involves the study of theory and clinical practice and its application in acute care and community settings. As a part of your qualification, you cover subjects including mental health, paediatrics, obstetrics, gynaecology and emergency medicine. Many aspects of this diploma are similar to postgraduate medical degrees.

6. Complete practical clinical training

As a part of training, students on the postgraduate physician associate diploma have placements in various clinical settings for a total of 1,600 hours. This time includes at least 90 hours in locations, such as mental health care, surgery and paediatrics, plus 350 hours in a general hospital. You qualify as a physician associate upon completing training and passing the Physician Associate National Certifying Examination.

7. Consider an accredited master's degree

An accredited master's degree is an alternative to a postgraduate diploma, providing an academic approach to training. Master's degrees with accreditation by the Faculty of Physician Associates (FPA) include all the standards and requirements necessary to qualify. For example, your master's degree course may pair with a local teaching hospital, providing the opportunity to gain vital clinical experience.

Related: Medical degrees: types, requirements and length of study

8. Join the Physician Associate Managed Voluntary Register (PAMVR)

Registering with the PAMVR is the final step required before you can apply for jobs as a physician associate. This FPA physician associate membership is a part of the Royal College of Physicians, the professional body that oversees physician associates. Many employers require registration before you're eligible to apply for a job, making this an important stage in becoming a qualified physician associate.

9. Apply for jobs as a physician associate

Once you register and complete your diploma or equivalent qualification, you can apply for roles as a physician associate. The public sector offers the majority of physician associate roles, with some private clinics, hospitals or rehabilitation centres also hiring for medical teams. Job listings for physician associates are typically full-time, though there may be part-time or job share options within certain circumstances.

Related: How much does a physician associate make? (With job duties)

Tips for finding a physician associate job

Here are some helpful tips for finding a job as a physician associate:

Use your existing training for faster qualification

If you're already fully qualified as a nurse or other medical professional, you can use that experience and knowledge to reduce the time spent training. You may be eligible to go straight into a diploma, reducing your training from five years to two with no requirement to complete an undergraduate degree. Some employers may sponsor a transition into a physician associate role as a part-time qualification or by providing an apprenticeship.

Gain experience in a range of environments

Gaining experience in different environments, such as emergency departments, general hospitals and clinics, can be helpful in deciding which area of medicine you'd like to go into. For example, the responsibilities and hours of a physician associate in a standard GP practice differ from the working environment in an A&E department. Experiencing different working environments is a requirement for passing your diploma, but the opportunity to diversify your experience further can be valuable in finding the right job.

Ensure you have good grades in biomedical subjects

To be eligible for a physician associate career path gaining good grades in relevant biomedical subjects is a requirement. As a postgraduate diploma, many of the areas of study involved in physician associate training are equivalent to medical degrees. A firm understanding of life and healthcare-related sciences is integral for understanding the technical skills and clinical theories involved in learning to be a physician associate.

Continue training to access higher-paying roles

Physician associates can continue their training and specialisation to improve their promotion chances or seek higher-paying work. For example, you can move into a senior physician associate role after years of experience or take training in leadership to move into a management position. Changing environments, such as moving from a public hospital to a private clinic, can provide more opportunities to access higher-paying jobs with your skills and experience.

Related: 10 highest paying medical jobs in the U.K. (with salary info)

Consider which training route is better for you

There are multiple pathways to becoming a physician associate, including a diploma, apprenticeship or accredited master's degree. Choosing the option that suits your lifestyle and requirements can help you gain your qualification and learn effectively. For example, an apprenticeship may work for you if you earn an income while developing your skills. A master's degree may be the better option if you want to remain at the same university for your training. There's no one right route to becoming a physician associate, so it comes down to personal preference.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

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