Physician assistant (PA) is among the most in-demand healthcare jobs in the country. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the growth rate for PA jobs at 31 percent—ten times the rate for physicians and surgeons—from 2020 through 2030. U.S. News & World Report ranks physician assistant the third-best job in the country and second-best healthcare job (after nurse practitioner).
These highly-specialized professionals perform many of the same functions as doctors: for example, they treat patients, diagnose conditions, and prescribe medications. In many states, PAs go about their duties with significant autonomy. They work in clinics, hospitals, and doctor's offices, diagnose and treat patients, hold leadership positions, and typically earn more than $120,000 per year.
Physician assistant graduate education provides options for specialization; PAs can choose among 54 subspecialties. Each path leads to different job opportunities and commensurate salaries.
Continue reading this article to learn more about physician assistant specializations, as well as:
The American Academy of Physician Associates (AAPA) recognizes seven groups of physician assistant specialties and 54 subspecialties. PAs often qualify for a specialization during clinical rotations in their master's program. They can also specialize is by earning a Certificate of Added Qualifications (CAQ) from the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA).
Let's look at seven popular PA specialties, including their pay (which varies significantly according to location and setting).
Psychiatric physician assistants are responsible for assessing and diagnosing patients' conditions and prescribing any appropriate psychotropic medications. They also order labs, coordinate consultations with specialists (like neurologists), and refer patients to other providers for additional care (like psychotherapy). Psychiatric physician assistants work in both in-patient and outpatient clinical settings, including hospitals, clinics, and prisons. They earn $117,511 a year on average.
According to AAPA numbers, emergency management is one of the highest-paying PA specialties: emergency medicine PAs earned a median pay of $124,100 in 2020. Nearly 10 percent of PA professionals choose this specialization. Emergency medicine PAs typically work in hospital emergency rooms performing triage, providing critical care, ordering and interpreting diagnostic tests, and developing treatment plans.
Family medicine PAs work with patients of all ages (children and adults), diagnosing and treating injuries and illness and managing patients with chronic conditions. They also perform minor surgical procedures, prescribe medications, and order and interpret lab tests. They work at doctor's offices and clinics, community health centers, and home health agencies. Indeed.com lists family medicine PAs' average salary at $102,674.
Internal medicine physician assistants see adult ptients. They obtain patient histories, perform physicals, treat chronic illnesses, monitor patients' medication order and interpret labs and EKGs. In addition, they often have experience in internal medicine subspecialty areas including cardiology, ENT, dermatology, orthopedics, emergency medicine, and hematology/oncology. The average salary for internal medicine physician assistants is $103,210.
Physician assistants who work in obstetrics and gynecology typically perform annual pap, pelvic, and breast exams and provide family planning services. They also administer prenatal and postnatal care and treat menopause issues. OB/GYN physician assistants work in OB/GYN practices, community health and family planning centers, and urgent care centers. They earn $152,053 annually on average.
Pediatric PAs earn an average of $130,369. These professionals typiclly work in pediatric offices and children's hospital units. Their duties include performing physical examinations, diagnosing and treating illnesses, and assisting with surgery.
Many PAs (nearly 30 percent, according to the AAPA) elect to pursue surgery as their specialization, including general surgery and such surgical subspecialties as neurosurgery, urology, thoracic surgery, and vascular surgery. These professionals typically work in operating rooms, assisting surgeons during procedures. They also prepare patients for surgery and assist during the recovery process. The average salary for a surgical physician assistant is $123,319 (though salaries are higher for a cardiothoracic physician assistants at $152,670).
The AAPA outlines five steps to becoming a physician assistant.
The first step is to complete prerequisite coursework. PA programs have strict admissions requirements that favor applicants with a bachelor's degree in science, including biology, anatomy, physiology, and microbiology. According to the Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA) 41.5 percent of PA students earned one of these undergraduate degrees.
PA programs also require relevant work experience in patient care. The AAPA notes that the average PA applicant has worked for three years as a nurse, medical assistant, or scribe before entering a PA master's degree program.
Once you've been admitted to a PA program accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA), you'll begin your PA coursework and gain clinical experience through at least hours of 2,000 clinical rotations. PA programs prepare graduates to sit for the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE), which the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) operates. The test lasts five hours and covers general competency guidelines every PA must meet.
After passing the PANCE, you'll apply for state licensure. States have different requirements but typically ask for proof of education, letters of recommendation, and a background check.
Finally, you must maintain your certification through continuing medical education (CME), including specialization coursework. Every ten years, PAs need to complete the Physician Assistant National Recertifying Exam (PANRE), though other recertification options are coming in 2023.
Most Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies (PAS) programs last over two years—an average of 26.5 months, according to the AMA Journal of Ethics. Other healthcare degrees like Master of Clinical Health Services (MCHS) and Master of Health Sciences (MHS) can also lead to physician assistant career.
Students prepare for PA licensure by balancing didactic coursework with clinical rotations. You'll complete rotations in several areas of practice, including internal medicine, emergency medicine, behavioral health, and pediatrics. Each program offers unique rotational opportunities. For instance, University of Pittsburgh students can return to their favorite rotation or pursue a different specialty area during their elective.
Didactic coursework includes subjects like physiology, biochemistry, pharmacology, physical diagnosis, and clinical laboratory science, according to the AAPA. You'll also learn about proper ethical and legal practices surrounding PA work. While coursework differs, all accredited programs meet the same educational standards.
According to the US News & World Report, the top PA master's programs include:
Top online or hybrid PA programs include:
Top PA programs at HBCUs include:
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