Physician Assistant Specialties Guide

Physician assistants are trained healthcare professionals who provide direct care to patients. There are many physician assistant specialties from which to choose. You can tailor your career path to your interests and passions. It’s also possible to select one area of focus and later change it to another, which can enable physician assistants to switch paths throughout the course of their career.

This guide covers common physician assistant specialties, typical duties that may be associated with each and how to pursue a PA specialty. 

What Is a Physician Assistant Specialty? 

A physician assistant or a certified physician assistant (PA-C) may have the opportunity to focus their work in a number of medical specialties. These are specific areas within medicine where a PA-C receives advanced education and clinical training that can enable them to provide an elevated level of care. 

There are many types of physician assistants. Some examples of PA specialties include:

  • Emergency medicine
  • Outpatient medicine
  • Orthopedic surgery
  • Pediatrics
  • Psychiatry

It is not uncommon for a PA-C to switch their specialties during the course of their career. In fact, according to the American Academy of Physician Associates (AAPA), 6% to 7% of PA-Cs switch specialties yearly

How to Pursue a PA Specialty 

Earning your bachelor’s and master’s degrees from accredited education programs and passing a state licensing exam are among the requirements for becoming a physician assistant.

A currently licensed physician assistant may be able to apply for a Certificate of Added Qualifications (CAQ) within certain specialties. CAQ is a voluntary certification from the NCCPA, the only certifying organization for PAs in the United States, and is available for the following PA specialties:

  • Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery (CVTS)
  • Dermatology
  • Emergency Medicine
  • Hospital Medicine
  • Nephrology
  • Orthopaedic Surgery
  • Pediatrics
  • Palliative Medicine and Hospice Care
  • Psychiatry

What Can a PA Specialize In? 

It’s important to remember that the responsibilities of a physician assistant can vary based on your specialization, type of medical facility in which you work and the laws of the state. There are many types of physician assistant certification for different specialties. 

Some common medical specializations and their possible associated duties include:

  • Addiction Medicine – Focuses on assessing and developing treatment plans for patients recovering from various types of addiction. 
  • Adolescent Medicine – Concentrates on providing medical care to adolescents, including taking histories, evaluating, diagnosing and treating medical issues.
  • Anesthesiology – Performs exams, orders labs and other required tests pre- and post-surgery. May assist in preparing and educating patients to receive anesthesia and provide aftercare instructions.
  • Critical Care Medicine – Usually works within an intensive care or similar unit, examining, diagnosing, providing and monitoring treatment for critical medical support patients.
  • Dermatology – Focuses on conditions related to skin, hair and nails. May evaluate, diagnose, prescribe and administer treatments in a doctor’s office, clinic or hospital setting.
  • Emergency Medicine – Often works in emergency care centers, triaging patients, ordering diagnostics and providing emergency medical help to patients. 
  • ENT/Otolaryngology – Examines patients, diagnoses and provides treatment for medical issues and injuries to the ear, nose and throat.
  • Family Medicine/General Practice – Works with patients of all ages and provides day-to-day medical care, including evaluating and diagnosing issues, creating treatment plans, prescribing medication and performing medical procedures.
  • Hospice and Palliative Medicine – Provides a range of pain support and end-of-life care for patients. May work in hospitals, clinics and hospice programs.
  • Hospital Medicine – Examines and admits patients, conducts patient rounds, evaluates patients and orders tests, medications and treatment.
  • Internal Medicine – Performs diagnostics, orders medication and provides non-emergency medical services to patients who have a range of medical conditions. 
  • Obstetrics and Gynecology – Performs pelvic and breast exams, provides various diagnostic tests, orders labs, prescribes medication and assists in prenatal and postnatal care. 
  • Occupational Medicine – Examines, diagnoses and treats employees who have been injured in their workplace. These PAs may work in clinics, urgent care or doctors’ offices. 
  • Ophthalmology – Examines, diagnoses and performs in-office procedures related to the care of eye-related medical issues.
  • Pain Medicine – Helps patients manage chronic or acute pain. Evaluates patients and provides pain management and prevention-related medical services.
  • Pathology – Helps diagnose diseases, which can include performing postmortem examinations, collecting samples and ordering and interpreting lab results.
  • Pediatric – Performs well- and sick-child visits in a doctor’s office or other outpatient setting and may examine, diagnose, prescribe and provide a range of medical treatments. 
  • Preventive Medicine/Public Health – Performs exams, diagnoses and treats illness and orders and interprets diagnostic tests. May also provide education and aftercare instructions and prescribe medication. 
  • Psychiatry – Provides a range of psychiatric and mental health services, including ordering diagnostics and prescribing medication.
  • Radiology – Typically works within MRI, CT or interventional radiology. May perform exams, order and interpret diagnostics, administer medical treatment and prescribe medication. 
  • Surgery – Typically works in the operative units of a hospital or surgical center. As part of the surgical team, may order labs, interpret results, provide treatments and medications as required.
  • Urology – Works with urologists to evaluate, diagnose and treat patients dealing with urological issues.

Is a PA Specialty Worth It?

Career and education choices are highly personal and based on individuals’ unique interests and goals. There is no career path that is better than another, it’s just a matter of finding an occupation that is rewarding for you. 

As a PA or PA-C, you may have a high degree of career flexibility in being able to switch to a different specialization if you choose. Additionally, the possible PA specialties salary expectations can vary by specialization. You may be able to earn more if you select a PA specialty associated with higher earning potential (PDF, 3MB), such as cardiovascular and thoracic surgery PAs. 

Last updated in February 2022