Learn About Being a Navy Physician Assistant

Physician assistant assessing simulated casualty
••• Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

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 the Navy, PAs are expected to provide the same worldwide service as any other military professional, though in addition to postings at land-based hospitals they may serve aboard aircraft carriers and other ships, caring for sailors and Marines, enlisted and officer alike. Read ahead to learn how the Navy recruits its PAs from both the civilian and enlisted military community.

Civilians: Direct Commission

Whenever the Navy has openings, civilian physician assistants can skip "Go" and collect an officer's commission.

None of the Navy's requirements for the job are more important than valid licensure, but PAs must also be medically- and physically-fit US citizens between the ages of 18 and 41, according to their recruiting website. Though the site also claims that a bachelor's degree is the minimum education requirement for direct commission, this is somewhat misleading: According to Dawn McKay, PA Licensure requires a master's.

If you're a PA applying for a direct commission, then you've already toughed it out through at least six years of tuition and loans. But there may be a light at the end of that dark financial tunnel in the form of the Navy's Health Professions Loan Repayment Program (HPLRP), which offers up to $80,000 in reimbursement for graduate school loans in exchange for active duty service.

Obviously, licensed civilians entering the Navy already have most of the education they need to do the job, but that doesn't make them naval officers. Luckily, the medical expertise they bring to the table earns them a much shorter road than your standard officer: The Direct Commission Officer Indoctrination Course at Newport, Rhode Island, despite being "comprehensive [and] intense," is only two weeks long. Somehow in those two weeks, new Navy PAs learn enough about military leadership, customs, and naval history to earn their first salute -- though my favorite part is that they'll sweat through drill and physical training under experienced Marine Corps Drill Instructors.

Civilian Scholarships

In addition to HPLRP, the Navy offers two programs to help future PAs finish their schooling: The Health Professions Scholarship Program and the Health Services Collegiate Program.

I like these programs because their names and benefits are nearly identical, allowing me to appear highly skilled in the art of brevity. There are two basic differences:

  • If you're going to rack up a tuition higher than $134,600 -- the cap for the Collegiate Program –- then the Scholarship Program holds the advantage with 100% tuition reimbursement.
  • Though both programs offer a monthly stipend (similar to the Post-9/11 GI Bill's monthly housing allowance) the Collegiate Program's $3,280 to $5,610 per month towers over the Scholarship Program's $2,122. (Personally, any of those three numbers sounds tasty to me. But I've yet to earn my fortune, so mostly I just like any number of more than one digit preceded by a dollar sign.)

    Sailors and Marines: Interservice Physician Assistant Program (IPAP)

    Look at you, fancy civilian PAs, with your expensive degrees and your scholarship programs. As Craig Ferguson would say, "Ye think you're great, but ye're not great." (Just kidding. You are beautiful and amazing. Please keep reading.) Anyway, my point is that enlisted folk in the Department of the Navy, including Marines, have their own opportunity to earn a PA career while serving.

    The Navy sets its own requirements for IPAP in chapter 6 of OPNAVINST 1420.1B(MS Word). Sailors and Marines must be at least an E-5 (petty officer 2nd class or sergeant, respectively) and younger than 42 years. The program is only for active duty servicemembers, but reservists may apply if they're in the Full Time Service or Active Reserve programs.

    In some ways (if you already intended on a military career) IPAP is a nifty shortcut around some of the long schooling required to become a PA. No bachelor's degree? No problem: Entry only requires a high school diploma and 60 undergraduate credits. That's a feasible goal for off-duty education, though 30 credits in core subjects like chemistry and anatomy must be taken in residence. Sailors of any rating (or Marines with any military occupational specialty) can apply for IPAP, but the regulation adds that hospital corpsmen who finished advanced schooling to become independent duty corpsmen gain an edge by wiping out "the additional 30 semester hours and the 6 A&P [anatomy and physiology] semester hours."

    Navy students in IPAP train alongside future PAs from the other service branches at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, where they spend the first phase of the program earning a bachelor's degree. The remainder of the program takes them through clinical experience and a master's thesis at naval hospitals aboard either Camp Pendleton or Naval Base San Diego.