The Ultimate Guide to Exploring Enriching Physician Assistant Specialties

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Discover the benefits of specializing as a PA, the top highest-paying fields, and a roadmap you can follow to obtain licensure. Gain insight into niche areas to figure out how to choose the perfect PA career that aligns with your interests.

Career Outlook for Physician Assistants

Physician Assistants are highly-trained healthcare professionals who offer a wide range of services. PAs are instrumental in providing generalized and nuanced patient care. As a PA, your day-to-day involves working with patients to make a significant impact. It's a rewarding, thriving career field.

In fact, the rising aging population and an enhanced focus on preventive care have built a growing demand for PAs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 27% increase in Physician Assistant jobs (from 2022 to 2032).

Trends of healthcare profession increases

PA salaries have also increased by 14% in the last five years. Additionally, the PA profession is expanding due to:

  • The evolving needs of patient care
  • Filling access gaps
  • The Affordable Care Act (by improving healthcare quality and resources)

What is the benefit of pursuing a physician assistant specialty?

Following a specialized path to a Physician Assistant career is a profoundly rewarding and professionally enriching journey. Gaining experience in a targeted PA specialty makes you an indispensable expert in a healthcare field aligned with your passions and interests. You'll find open doors to a spectrum of possibilities, including enhanced job satisfaction, competitive remuneration, and a profound sense of fulfillment from impacting patients' lives.

Embrace your dream career where professionalism meets purpose, and every day presents a new opportunity. Let's dive into some additional benefits of Physician Assistant specialties.

Expertise in a Specific Area: Specializing allows you to focus on a particular medical field, gaining in-depth knowledge and expertise. This can lead to a deeper understanding of conditions, treatments, and procedures.
Increased Job Opportunities: Training often creates access to more job opportunities. Certain healthcare settings may prefer or require PAs with specialized skills to address niche patient needs.
Higher Earning Potential: Specialized areas of the Physician Assistant profession tend to earn higher salaries than generalists. The expertise and additional training can be recognized and rewarded in compensation.
Career Satisfaction:  Working as a PA can provide you with a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction. PAs may find greater enjoyment and purpose in their work when focused on a particular area of medicine.
Patient Care Impact:  PAs impact patient care significantly within a specific niche. They can become experts in diagnosing and treating conditions within their chosen field, improving patient outcomes.
Professional Development:  Staying updated on the latest advancements in the chosen field can contribute to your professional growth and development.
Networking Opportunities: PAs often have the chance to build relationships with other professionals in their niche. Networking can lead to collaboration, knowledge sharing, and career advancement opportunities.
Contributions to Research and Education: PAs can contribute to research, educate others in their field, and participate in advancements that can benefit patients and the medical community.

How to Choose the Right Physician Assistant Specialty

Finding the right PA career is an important decision that depends on various factors, including personal interests, values, and skills. Take a look at some steps to help you decide how your professional preferences will align with different Physician Assistant specialties:

  1. Complete a self-assessment: Reflect on your personal interests and skills to identify areas of medicine that will interest you.
  2. Research PA specialties: There are more than 60 specialties to choose from, including anesthesia, cardiology, dermatology, hospital medicine, pediatrics, and surgery. Research each specialty to understand the responsibilities, work environment, and job outlook.
  3. Gain clinical experience: During your PA program, you'll complete clinical training in various areas, which can help you determine which specialties align with your interests and skills.
  4. Consider salary and job growth: While salary should not be the sole factor, it's essential to consider the earning potential and job growth for each PA field.
  5. Be open to change: Your first PA job does not have to be your last. As you gain experience, you should explore other areas of interest.

Looking to try exam-like practice questions across PA specialties? The UWorld PA QBank includes all PA topics covered in EORs, PANCE, and PANRE.

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Can PAs change specialties?

You can change specialties throughout your career as a Physician Assistant (PA). You may need additional training and certifications, but you'll have the flexibility to pursue new areas of focus based on your preferences. Consider a scenario where a PA specializing in Emergency Medicine decides to transition to Dermatology. This might involve:

  1. Postgraduate Dermatology Fellowship
  2. Continuing Medical Education (CME) Courses
  3. Board Certification in Dermatology
  4. Clinical Experience

Your Path to Physician Assistant Specialties: Training and Education

To specialize as a Physician Assistant (PA), follow these steps:

  1. Earn a Bachelor's Degree: Take relevant undergraduate courses in preparation for a PA Master’s program.
  2. Acquire Clinical Experience: Gain experience in various healthcare settings to become familiar with the day-to-day responsibilities of a physician assistant.
  3. Apply for and Complete Graduate School: Submit your graduate school application. Then, continue your education to complete a Master's program.
  4. Prep for the PANCE: Study comprehensive PA content to prepare for your high-stakes exam.
  5. Obtain Your Licensure: After passing the PANCE, become a PA-C (Physician Assistant-Certified).
  6. Find Your Specialty by Pursuing Fellowship Opportunities: Look for positions or programs based on your interests. Consider fellowship programs such as:
    • Surgical PA Fellowship
    • Primary Care Fellowship
    • Pediatric PA Fellowship
6 steps to becoming a Physician Assistant
6 steps to becoming a Physician Assistant

Helpful examples of fellowship opportunities for various PA specialties

Thankfully, several fellowship opportunities are available for aspiring Physician Assistants like you. Fellowships typically last 12 to 18 months and provide intense, organized training for PAs. Some of the popular PA fellowship programs include:

  • Emergency Medicine PA Fellowship: This 18-month on-the-job training program includes rotations in the ED, SICU, MICU, Hospital Medicine, Toxicology, EMS, Anesthesia, Orthopedics, and a Pediatric ED.
  • Centra Health PA Fellowships: Centra Health offers various 9-month fellowships designed for new graduate PAs, including didactic instruction and hands-on clinical training.
  • Brigham and Women's Physician Assistant Fellowship: To make strides toward decreasing the gender pay gap, Brigham provides a 12-month postgraduate inpatient fellowship program with competitive compensation and full benefits.

The PA profession is jam-packed with diverse positions, fields, and opportunities. Let's dive into a breakdown of each PA specialty by percentage.

Primary Care 23.1%
Family Medicine/General Practice 17.1%
Emergency Medicine 11.2%
Orthopedic Surgery 10.7%
Dermatology 4.2%
Internal Medicine – General Practice 4.1%
Hospital Medicine 3.7%
Cardiothoracic and Vascular Surgery 3.3%
General Surgery 3.1%
Cardiology 2.9%
Psychiatry 2.2%
Neurosurgery 2.2%
Critical Care Medicine 2.0%
Pediatrics – General 1.8%
Gastroenterology 1.7%
Oncology 1.6%
Pain Medicine 1.5%
Occupational Medicine 1.3%
Obstetrics and Gynecology 1.2%
Urology 1.0%
Plastic Surgery 1.0%
Otolaryngology 1.0%
Neurology 1.0%
Geriatrics .8%
Physical Medicine/Rehabilitation .6%
*Source: NCCPA 2022

Top 5 physician assistant specialties

Several Physician Assistant (PA) specialties are growing in popularity because of:

  1. Scope of Practice Expansion: In recent years, regulatory changes and healthcare reforms have expanded the scope of practice for PAs. This growth allows PAs to take on more responsibilities, including performing procedures, managing patients independently, and providing primary care services.
  2. Provider Shortages: The healthcare industry needs more primary care physicians and specialists. As a result, healthcare organizations are turning to PAs to fill the gaps in patient care.
  3. Flexibility and Versatility: PAs are highly adaptable healthcare professionals capable of working in various specialties and settings.
Popular Physician Assistant Specialties
Popular Physician Assistant Specialties PA Growth Rates from 2015-2020
Surgical Subspecialties 18.7%
Family Medicine / General Practice 18.1%
Emergency Medicine 12.4%
Internal Medicine Subspecialties 9.5%
Internal Medicine–General Practice 4.1%
*Source: NCCPA 2022

Top 5 highest-paying PA specialties in 2024

PA Specialties
PA Specialties Salary
Cardiovascular/Cardiothoracic Surgery $152,500
Dermatology $137,250
Emergency Medicine $285,000
Orthopedic Surgery $128,000
Urgent Care $128,980
*Source: NCCPA 2022

Take a look at the average number of PA hours worked per week

To get the complete of a PA career, you should understand what the day-to-day and weekly view looks like.

Hours Worked Per Week By PA Specialty

2022 2018
Specialty Mean Median Mean Median
Primary Care 39 40 39 40
Cardiology 41 40 42 40
Cardiothoracic and Vascular Surgery 45 45 46 48
Critical Care Medicine 42 40 42 40
Dermatology 37 40 37 40
Emergency Medicine 38 40 39 40
Family Medicine/General Practice 39 40 39 40
Gastroenterology 41 40 41 40
General Surgery 42 40 43 40
Geriatrics 40 40 40 40
Hospital Medicine 42 40 43 40
Internal Medicine - General Practice 39 40 40 40
Neurology 41 40 41 40
Neurosurgery 45 45 46 45
Obstetrics and Gynecology 37 40 37 40
Occupational Medicine 37 40 38 40
Oncology 41 40 41 40
Orthopedic Surgery 43 42 45 45
*Source: NCCPA 2022

Examine specialized postgraduate programs

Deciding on a PA specialty requires careful planning and research. View the table below to understand how many Physician Assistants work (or don't) in the same practice area their residency or fellowship program was in. The key aspect to remember is that you'll have a lot of opportunities and flexibility as a PA.

Postgraduate Program By Specialty Practice Area

Specialty Complete Postgraduate Program (residency or fellowship) Practice Area of Postgraduate Same as Current Principal Practice Area
Primary Care 3.1% 48.7%
Cardiology 2.8% 28.0%
Cardiothoracic and Vascular Surgery 8.2% 34.1%
Critical Care Medicine 15.3% 68.9%
Dermatology 8.2% 84.2%
Emergency Medicine 10.0% 85.0%
Family Medicine/General Practice 3.2% 46.0%
Gastroenterology 2.8% 30.9%
General Surgery 6.5% 73.6%
Geriatrics 3.6% 18.8%
Hospital Medicine  4.3% 62.0%
Internal Medicine - General Practice 2.9% 22.8%
Neurology 3.2% 50.0%
Neurosurgery 4.4% 23.9%
Obstetrics and Gynecology 4.4% 77.4%
Occupational Medicine 5.6% 24.1%
Oncology 3.9% 59.7%
Orthopedic Surgery 5.2% 69.3%
Otolaryngology 5.0% 45.9%
Pain Medicine 3.3% 12.5%
Pediatrics - General 2.5% 45.1%
Physical Medicine/Rehabilitation 2.0% 23.1%
Plastic Surgery 6.3% 9.5%
Psychiatry 7.8% 74.7%
Urology 3.2% 21.1%
*Source: NCCPA 2022

Key Points: Find the PA Path That's the Best Fit For You

Becoming a Physician Assistant is a fulfilling career path for any student aspiring to make an impact in the healthcare profession. Find a specialty aligned with your interests, skills, and aspirations. Don't forget to research the growth opportunities and educational requirements for various specialties to position yourself for long-term success.

Start your journey to a rewarding PA job as you prepare for didactics, clinicals, PANCE, PANRE, and beyond with top-tier exam prep.

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