Physician assistants continue to move into specialty areas, including hospital medicine and surgery

Doctors talking
The majority of physician assistants are working in specialties, a new report found. (Getty/wmiami)

Physician assistants (PA) aren’t just working in primary care anymore, as a new report shows an overwhelming majority work in specialty areas, including both hospital medicine and surgery.

The report (PDF), published by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA), found that more than 70% of PAs work in specialties outside of primary care, including in highly technical surgical specialties.

PAs working in specialties are also well compensated, earning an average salary of more than $104,000, according to the report. The highest paid PAs work in cardiothoracic surgery, dermatology and emergency medicine.

The NCCPA, which certifies PAs, says 115,000 certified PAs are now working in U.S. healthcare. The report was based on input from more than 94% of the group’s certified PAs and found they perform medical services and complex procedures in every specialty and clinical setting.

It is a growing profession and almost 6,900 new PAs entered the workforce last year. Those PAs may also help solve the projected physician shortage, which already exists in some areas of the country, particularly in rural communities. A report from the Association of American Medical Colleges released in March showed a projected shortage of between 40,800 and 104,900 doctors by 2030.

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It’s a younger workforce, with more than half of PAs under the age of 40, a group which should provide care for patients as more senior healthcare providers retire. PAs are also filling care gaps in rural states, such as Alaska, Idaho and Montana, where PA-to-patient ratios are higher than most states.

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“As the need for cost effective, high quality healthcare increases, so will the vast array of career opportunities and sorely needed patient services—a real win-win," Dawn Morton-Rias, Ed.D., president and CEO of NCCPA, said in an announcement.

Americans are living longer with chronic diseases, making pain management and hospice and palliative medicine growing areas of medicine, as reflected for the first time in the report. While most of the 69 medical and surgical specialties included in the report experienced growth, the number of PAs working in family medicine, emergency medicine and orthopedic surgery increased significantly.