Everything you Need to Know about Becoming a Certified Physician Assistant

The National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA), the only certifying organization for physician assistants in the United States, offers the Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C) designation to signify a higher level of clinical knowledge, clinical reasoning, and other medical skills and professional behaviors.

The NCCPA’s PA-C designation is one component of state licensure for physician assistants throughout the U.S. As of December 2014, there were 102,000 certified physician assistants providing patient care in nearly all medical and surgical specialties and subspecialties throughout the U.S.

How to Become a Certified Physician Assistant

Only graduates of physician assistant programs accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA) may take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) so as to achieve the PA-C designation and move on to state licensure.

Here’s what you will want to know about becoming PA-C certified:

Registering for and Scheduling the PANCE: What to Expect

Before taking the PANCE, you must submit an application to the NCCPA, along with the $475 examination fee. Once the NCCPA has received your examination packet and payment, you can expect to receive an exam acknowledgement from the NCCPA, at which time you can schedule your examination.

You can contact the NCCPA at [email protected] or at 678-417-8100 if you have any questions regarding the application or scheduling process.

You may schedule to take the exam at any time, depending on your local testing center’s availability. After you have registered for the examination, you can schedule your examination and receive information on testing centers in your area by visiting Pearson VUE. Pearson VUE testing centers throughout the U.S. administer the PANCE.

The deadline to take the PANCE is 180 days from your graduation date, provided you have successfully submitted all of the required materials to the NCCPA.

Some of the following points to consider when registering for the PANCE include:

  • You must be within 90 days of your graduation completion date to submit an application.
  • The earliest date you can test is seven days after the completion of your program. PANCE will provide you with this date in your acknowledgement email.
  • You may only take the PANCE once in a 90-day period, or three times within one calendar year.
  • No testing will take place between December 20 and December 31, 2015.

PANCE Content: How to Prepare

The PANCE consists of 300 multiple-choice questions administered in five blocks of 60 questions. You will have 60 minutes to complete each block. In addition to the five hours of testing time, you will have a total of 45 minutes allotted for breaks between blocks.

You should familiarize yourself with the PANCE content blueprint before taking the exam. You can find a complete description of each content area here.

The PANCE content is broken down by percentage for each content area:

  • History taking and performing physical examinations: 16 percent
  • Using laboratory and diagnostic studies: 14 percent
  • Formulating most likely diagnosis: 18 percent
  • Health maintenance: 10 percent
  • Clinical intervention: 14 percent
  • Pharmaceutical therapeutics: 18 percent
  • Applying basic science concepts: 10 percent

You may also prepare to take the examination by viewing the PANCE tutorial through Pearson VUE or by taking one of the NCCPA’s practice exams. These online, 120-question practice exams provide students with the opportunity to assess their strengths and weaknesses and direct their study efforts accordingly.

PANCE Scoring: What to Know

The NCCPA develops the PANCE questions based on committees comprising PAs and physicians from a variety of practice specialties, geographic regions, and practice settings, among others.

Each correct answer earns 1 point and each incorrect answer earns 0 points, which formulates your raw score. After the computation of your raw score by independent computer systems to ensure accuracy, you will receive a score based on a sophisticated, mathematically based procedure designed to calculate your proficiency measure, which is then converted to a scaled score. The score range for the PANCE is between 200 and 800.

How to Maintain Your Physician Assistant Certification

As of 2014, the NAACP began transitioning newly certified PAs to a ten-year certification maintenance cycle (it was previously a six-year cycle), which is divided into five, two-year periods. During every two-year period, you must earn at least 100 CME credits and submit a certification maintenance fee of $130 to the NCCPA by December 31 of your certification expiration year.

By the end of the tenth year of your certification maintenance cycle, you must also pass a recertification examination called the Physician Assistant National Recertifying Exam (PANRE). The PANRE assesses general medical and surgical knowledge and is based on the content of the PANCE.

Although the subject matter covered on examinations is similar, you can expect the questions on the PANCE examination to be more specific. The PANRE examination tends to address broader clinical issues.

You can read more about maintaining your PA-C designation by reading the NCCPA certification maintenance flyer.

How to Add Specialty Certificates of Added Qualifications to Your Physician Assistant Certification

You can achieve recognition for your specialty skills, knowledge, and experience through NCCPA’s certificate of added qualifications (CAQ) program.

The NCCPA offers the following CAQs:

  • Psychiatry CAQ
  • Pediatrics CAQ
  • Orthopaedic surgery CAQ
  • Nephrology CAQ
  • Hospital medicine CAQ
  • Emergency medicine CAQ
  • Cardiovascular and thoracic surgery CAQ

To qualify you must currently hold a PA-C designation, and you must possess a valid, unrestricted licensed to practice as a physician assistant in at least one U.S. jurisdiction.

You must also meet four, core requirements:

  • Possess at least two years of experience
  • Possess a Category I specialty CME
  • Possess the procedures and patient case experience appropriate for the specialty for which you are applying
  • Pass a specialty exam

The cost to take a specialty examination is $350, which includes a $100 administrative fee and the $250 exam registration fee.

Once you achieve a CAQ, it is valid for a period of 10 years, provided you maintain your PA-C certification. You can find more information on specialty certificates of added qualifications here.

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