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The demand for physician assistants in specialty areas seems to be increasing

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The demand for physician assistants in specialty areas seems to be increasing

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NP & PA Practice

The demand for physician assistants in specialty areas seems to be increasing

By Kirsten Malenke

According to a recent report by the National Commission on the Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) -- the only certifying organization for physician assistants in the United States -- PAs are now working in more specialty positions.

This is the NCCPA's very first practice specialty report, depicting data from over 93% of the current 108,717 physician assistants certified across the nation. More than 70% of PAs are now working in non-primary care specialties, including surgery and emergency medicine, stated a July 13 NCCPA press release detailing the report.1


There are 103 certified PAs for every 1,000 physicians in the U.S., with especially higher ratios in surgical subspecialties (373 PAs per 1,000 physicians), emergency medicine (291 PAs per 1,000 physicians), and dermatology (275 PAs per 1,000 physicians). According to the NCCPA, this report is the most comprehensive data available anywhere on PA specialty workforce data.1

Possible Reasons for an Increase in Specialties

More PAs may be stepping into specialty roles to compensate for physician shortages in those specialty fields, said Dawn Morton-Rias, EdD, PA-C, president and CEO of the NCCPA. "A key reason for the growth in specialties such as surgery and emergency medicine is that's where there's a real need, often due to physician shortages in those areas," she explained in a July 14 Forbes article.2

In fact, a physician workforce report released by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) projected a shortage of 61,700 to 94,700 physicians by 2025. Non-primary care specialties are estimated to face a shortage of 37,400 to 60,300 physicians, an April 5 AAMC press release said.3

Physician Assistant Jay Peterson, MSBS, PA-C, assistant program director and associate professor in the department of physician assistant studies at High Point University in North Carolina, told ADVANCE that the demand for PAs working in in all areas of medicine, but especially specialty areas, only seems to be increasing.

"In my opinion, there are many factors that have contributed to the increase in specialty practice, including physician shortages, the cost-effectiveness of PAs, better understanding and acceptance of the PA role in healthcare, and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) changes in medical coverage," Peterson said.

"The number of patients where the payer is Medicare or Medicaid, or where the PA is uncompensated, shows once again how certified PAs contribute greatly to healthcare equity," Morton-Rias said in the NCCPA press release. "Also, the high percentage of certified PAs employed in surgical subspecialties demonstrates the high degree of trust and confidence that surgeons have in them, relying on certified PAs to perform procedures, provide pre-op and post-op care, and serve as first and second assist to the surgeon in the operating room," she added.1

According to Forbes, a growing number of states are allowing PAs greater autonomy to increase access to patients, due in part to the physician shortage that has only been intensified by the flood of new patients insured by the ACA. PAs are also increasing their efforts to change state scope-of-practice laws in order to increase their direct access to patients.2

Overall, the future prospects of employment in specialty areas are looking promising for PAs as they compensate for physician shortages and experience greater prominence throughout the healthcare field.

Kirsten Malenke is a staff writer at ADVANCE. Contact:


  1. National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants. 2016. NCCPA Announces First-Ever Workforce Data on Physician Assistants in 22 Specialties.
  2. Japsen, B. Forbes. 2016. Physician Assistants Moving Into Specialties Amid Doctor Shortage.
  3. Association of American Medical Colleges. 2016. New Research Confirms Looming Physician Shortage.


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