Associate Care Providers Offer Health Care Careers

Becoming a nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant are two alternatives to medical school.

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Associate care providers are well-respected health care professionals who don’t need as lengthy a postgraduate education program.
Associate care providers are well-respected health care professionals who don’t need as lengthy a postgraduate education program.

Some students want to be health care professionals, but are uncertain about the role they ultimately want to perform. Many are concerned about the time needed to dedicate to medical school course work, or the ongoing commitment to medicine away from the patient.

If you are absolutely certain you want to be a doctor, apply to medical school. If you have doubts, you may want to consider a career as an associate provider.

Associate providers, also known as physician extenders, work alongside physicians to provide care in a variety of environments including hospitals, surgery and urgent care centers, physician offices and emergency rooms. Nurse practitioners and physician assistants have a narrower scope of practice and generally work under the oversight of a practicing physician, though in some states they work autonomously. 

The critical nursing shortage, along with the need for primary care practitioners, creates a wealth of opportunities for nurse practitioners and physician assistants. 

The following questions can help you listen to your instincts to discover the right professional path for you. 

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How much time do you want to invest? Becoming a doctor requires more than a decade of training after you earn your undergraduate degree, including medical school and postgraduate training. Nurse practitioners require either a master's degree or certificate program, generally an additional two years after nursing school and professional practice. 

Nurse practitioners focus on special certification and practice in multiple areas, including adult, family, pediatric, geriatric, women's and mental health. These health care workers provide acute care, preventive care and education for communities and families as well as individual patients. 

The average physician assistant program is 27 months long, according to the American Academy of Physician Assistants, following two years of college course work in physics, biology, biochemistry and inorganic chemistry. Check the Central Application Source for Physician's Assistant website for specific requirements

Physician assistants examine, diagnose and treat patients and promote wellness in various environments, including operating rooms. PAs, as they are known, can specialize in cardiovascular, neuro, orthopedic, otolaryngological or general surgery. 

These professionals perform procedures such as vein graph harvesting for cardiovascular bypass graph surgery; evaluate orthopedic injuries in sports medicine clinics; or treat pre- and postoperative patients. 

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How deep is your intellectual curiosity? Physicians continually struggle with determining the etiology and pathophysiology of disease. Nurse practitioners focus on specific problems from a person-centric perspective. Physician's assistants execute direct patient care. 

What role do you wish to fulfill in the health care team? The physician leads an interdisciplinary team and is the primary guide of the treatment plan. Nurse practitioners and physician assistants make decisions for patients in consultation with physicians. 

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Nurse practitioners and physician assistants have been a caring presence in the health care system since the mid-1960s. These roles are integral, well-respected and worthy of consideration for your career. 

Contact physician assistant and nurse practitioner programs in your area. Identify pros and cons with practicing professionals in the field and inquire about work-life balance, training programs and preparation for success. 

Opportunities abound in health care for professionals both at the bedside and beyond in ways which can positively impact our nation's health care. If you take the time to determine which role best fits your skills, as well as your career and life goals, you will have a lot of success. 

Sylvia E. Morris received her M.D. from Georgetown University School of Medicine and her Master's in Public Health from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She is an assistant professor at Emory University School of Medicine and a community health advocate. Find her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter.