When it comes to clinical specialization, the sky is the limit for graduates of the top physician assistant degree programs. PAs find work opportunities in every imaginable area of specialty and in all kinds of clinical environments. Because physician assistant degree programs equip aspiring PAs with the full range of skills of a generalist, going through one of these programs will give you a versatile foundation that you can use to pursue any area of specialty. Physician assistants can develop a specialty through a combination of work experience, training and professional certification.
The Biggest Areas of Clinical Specialization for Physician Assistants
Physician assistants can specialize in clinical practice areas that range from neurology to dermatology and from pediatrics to obstetrics and gynecology, according to the Mayo Clinic. They may specialize in the administration of anesthesia, the interpretation of radiologic tests or the process of surgical medical treatments. Many PAs choose a generalist option like family medicine or general practice, where they can serve as a patient’s long-term primary care provider. Still others focus on one of the numerous subspecialties that make up internal medicine, such as gastroenterology, infectious disease, immunology, oncology or endocrinology.
However, seven medical specialties are such popular choices for PAs that the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) offers specialized certification in them. These specialties are pediatrics, cardiovascular and thoracic surgery, hospital medicine, emergency medicine, psychiatry, orthopedic surgery and nephrology.
Pediatric physician assistants work with children. They perform physical exams on children of all ages, from newborn babies through adolescents. PAs who work in a pediatrician’s office often handle routine wellness exams, preventive screenings and immunizations and sick visits that involve typical childhood ailments and injuries. In hospital settings, physician assistants may perform job duties of a more complex clinical nature.
Physician assistants who specialize in cardiovascular and thoracic surgery focus on diagnosing and treating conditions of the heart and the other organs located in the chest. Hospital medicine PAs provide care for patients who are admitted to the hospital for an inpatient stay. Emergency medicine physician assistants handle the challenging, urgent medical conditions with which patients present in an emergency department setting. A PA who specializes in psychiatry diagnoses and treats mental health disorders from a medical standpoint, rather than an approach based in psychology, counseling or clinical social work. In the specialty of orthopedic surgery, you would treat disorders and diseases of the musculoskeletal system, which encompasses the muscles, bones, joints, tendons, ligaments and more. Nephrology PAs focus on the treatment of kidney disease.
The degree of specialization for a physician assistant ranges from general primary care to very specific areas of clinical practice, such as surgery to treat injuries to the hand or management of chronic medical conditions like diabetes.
Getting Certified in Your Clinical Specialty
The specialized certifications available from the NCCPA take the form of certificates of added qualifications, otherwise known as CAQs. Before you can seek certification in a specialty, you must develop proficiency in that area of medical practice.
The NCCPA requires a minimum of one to two years of experience working in a specialty before you can be eligible for certification, as well as a substantial amount of continuing medical education (CME) activities in that specialty. You must develop competence in performing a lengthy set of skills specific to that area of clinical practice – such as placing chest tubes and managing pacemakers for cardiology and thoracic surgery or managing dialysis complications for nephrology. Once you meet these eligibility requirements, you are ready to sit for the specialty exam, a passing score on which will lead to getting your CAQ.
The CAQ specialty exams generally consist of 120 multiple-choice questions, with each exam following its own unique content blueprint. Once you get a CAQ, you are certified for 10 years.
The Career Flexibility to Switch Medical Specialties as a PA
For doctors, choosing a medical specialty is, generally, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Due to the intense residency training requirements needed to specialize in an area of medicine and a lack of options for changing specialties, doctors usually don’t get to stray too far from their original chosen area of specialty. After all, it’s not feasible for most mid-career physicians to give up their practice and attempt to go back to the residency phase of training, which is already competitive among medical students preparing for the career path and which would mean taking a huge pay cut for a period of three to seven years.
Fortunately, PAs don’t have this problem. The physician assistant field offers greater career flexibility, according to the American Academy of PAs. Nearly half of physician assistants studied reported having two specialties over the course of their careers, which illustrates just as common – and manageable – switching medical specialties is for a PA.
Physician assistants change specialties for many reasons, like moving into a role that makes more money or one that allows for a more flexible, family-friendly schedule. Some PAs make a switch due to changes in personal interests or the desire to take on something new.