Career Profile: Army Physician Assistant

U.S. Army Captain Walter Mathis, the 3rd Sustainment Brigade's physician assistant, suture training
Public domain photograph from defenseimagery.mil.

Physician Assistant (PA) isn't the subservient role it sounds like. Though supervised by doctorate-trained physicians, PAs are trained at the graduate level and able to expand the reach of the healthcare team in assessing and treating patients. That level of skill and education earns military PAs a place in the commissioned ranks right alongside doctors, nurses, and other graduate-level professionals.

In addition to performing within the scope of their professional practice, PAs in the Army provide leadership within the military medical community: According to GoArmy.com, they may even serve as "commander[s] of companies, battalions, brigades and medical treatment facilities."

Civilians: Direct Commission

If you've already earned a graduate degree and licensure on your own dime, you can apply for direct commission into the Army's Medical Specialist Corps, an officer cadre that also includes occupational and physical therapists and dietitians.

Requirements in addition to professional licensure include US citizenship, proficiency in written and spoken English, and the ability to pass medical standards for Army officers. You must be at least 21 years old (not a problem for a licensed PA, unless you went through the Doogie Howser PA program) and not older than 46. But let's not forget that even though PAs are not frontline soldiers, the Army still has to have some standards for you: Recruiting materials state that PAs must "meet height and weight standards, as well as pass the Army Physical Fitness Test." In other words, medical professionals are not encouraged to sit around all day eating cheeseburgers, just because the Army's more interested in their medical education than their soldiering.

Education is largely a given if you're qualifying based on a master's degree, but PAs still have to attend a modified version of Officer Candidate School to ensure they're oriented to the lifestyle and culture of professional soldiers (and commissioned officers.) Unlike other officers, though, PAs and other Medical Specialist Corps candidates attend about 10 weeks of training called the Basic Officer Leader Course (BOLC), at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

(If you're joining the reserves, your stay is a significantly shorter two weeks.)

As illustrated by BOLC's course overview (PDF) new PAs get used to the Army with standard topics like drill and ceremony (how to walk), customs and courtesies (when and who to salute), and basic weaponry training with rifle and pistol. But there's also plenty of material tailored to medical officers, such as casualty evacuation, Army medical doctrine, and a final few weeks featuring specific topics for each category of allied health professional.

Civilian Scholarships

If you've already got a bachelor's degree and plan to earn your master's and PA license, you may also qualify for the generous Health Professions Scholarship Program -- in exchange, of course, for your service in the Army after graduation.

In addition to the usual requirements for obtaining a commission in the Army (see above) scholarship applicants must already have an acceptance letter to a full-time graduate program. Unlike direct commission PAs, scholarship recipients are required to attend BOLC for only six weeks, during a break in school. Afterward, newly-graduated PAs are commissioned and must pay back the scholarship with a year in the Army for every year of their graduate education.

If you want to serve, it seems like a pretty fair trade: According to GoArmy.com's summary of the scholarship program, tuition, books, and equipment are paid for -- and cost of living is defrayed with over $2,000 a month dropped in your pocket. That sounds a lot like the Post-9/11 GI Bill if you ask me -- but with the money up front, instead of your service -- and I assure you, a few grand a month goes a long way to letting you concentrate on your studies without a pesky part-time job eating up your time.

Soldiers: Interservice Physician Assistant Program (IPAP)

For professional soldiers interested in advancing the ladder to a commission as a PA, IPAP is the way to go. Like the civilian scholarship, it allows enlisted men and women to earn a graduate degree and a living -- in this case, without interrupting their time in the service.

I've provided a general overview of IPAP in How To Become a Physician Assistant for Free in the Military but read ahead for Army-specific requirements.

IPAP sounds like a natural progression for soldiers already in a health and medicine field like medic, but the Army doesn't require applicants to hold any particular military occupational specialty (MOS) to qualify. (Though some health-related jobs can incur a slight advantage, as you'll see in a moment.)

General requirements like citizenship and English-language proficiency remain the same. The major advantage over the civilian scholarship is that soldiers applying to IPAP don't necessarily need a four-year degree: Only 60 college credits are required. According to Army Regulation 601-20 (PDF), 30 credits must be taken in residence (no correspondence courses or equivalencies) for courses in English, humanities or social sciences, chemistry, anatomy and physiology, algebra, and psychology. Another 30 credits can be fulfilled by other means, such as test credits or equivalent military experience. Army lab technicians can get a leg up on the residence-only requirement with chemistry credits, while special forces medics and licensed practical nurses can get three credits for human anatomy.

Although IPAP is a graduate degree program, soldiers don't need to worry about taking the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE). But a Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) score of at least 1000, and no more than five years old, is a must.