Physician assistants (PAs) are medical providers who diagnose illnesses, develop and carry out treatment plans, prescribe medications, perform procedures and assist in surgeries. The job responsibilities are very similar to that of a doctor or general internist. Physician assistants rank #1 in Best Health Care Jobs, according to U.S. News & World Report.1

The main difference between an M.D. and a PA is that a physician assistant is required by law to practice under the supervision of a licensed physician. Also, physician assistants have master’s degrees from an accredited physician assistant program. The master’s degree programs take approximately 26 months to complete and include both supervised clinical work and coursework.  

How Much Do Physician Assistants Make?

The median physician assistant salary is $104,860 as of 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The PA salary range varies from $87,980 for the lowest paid PAs to $125,200 for the highest-paid ones. The job outlook for PAs is excellent. It is expected to grow at seven percent, which is much faster than average. There is a shortage of physicians, which is part of the reason for the high demand for PAs. Physician assistants can usually be trained much faster than physicians and their services are cost-effective, which are other reasons for the high demand for this occupation.  

What Are the Highest Paid Specialties for Physician Assistants?

Similar to physicians, PAs can specialize in a variety of different areas. Some of these specializations pay more than others. For instance, the surgical physician assistant salary is much higher ($105,000 per year) than the pediatrics PA salary, which is just $85,000 per year. Here are some of the highest paid PA specialties based on the 2017 National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants Speciality Report.2

Cardiothoracic and Vascular Surgery

Cardiothoracic PAs usually work with a cardiothoracic surgeon to treat patients who are in the process of undergoing surgery on the heart, lungs or esophagus. PAs do not operate. Instead, they assist surgeons before, during and after the procedure. Typical job responsibilities of a cardiothoracic PA might include explaining the procedure to the patient, performing pre-operative exams and tests and monitoring recovery after surgery. Cardiothoracic PAs have one of the highest salaries. The median salary is $125,000 per year. The majority of PAs that specialize in this sub-field work in hospitals (82 percent) or office-based private practices (12 percent).


Physician Assistants who specialize in dermatology diagnose and treat a wide variety of conditions that are related to the skin, hair, and nails. They perform both medical, cosmetic and surgical procedures. Dermatology PAs also prescribed medications for dermatological conditions, provide preventative care and counsel patients. Just under four percent of PAs in practice specializes in dermatology. The vast majority work in office-based private practice. The Dermatologist physician assistant salary is $115,000 per year (median).

Emergency Medicine

Emergency medicine PAs treat patients in the emergency room, urgent care or critical care unit. They diagnose and manage and treat acute and chronic illnesses, conduct physical examinations, perform x-rays and other diagnostic exams and prescribe medications. The median salary of $115,00 makes emergency medicine one of the highest paid sub-specialties.


A neurosurgery physician assistant treats patients with neurological conditions that require surgery. Neurosurgery PAs assist neurosurgeons during surgical procedures. They also take medical histories, perform physical examinations, provide education and counseling to patients and families and order and review diagnostic tests like X-rays, CT scans and MRIs. The majority of neurosurgery PAs work in hospitals and office-based private practices. Neurosurgery is one of the highest-paid PA specialties at $115,000 (median) per year.


PAs who specialize in pathology provide pathology reports for a variety of laboratory specimens, including postmortem. They are critical partners in assisting the pathologist to arrive at a diagnosis. Pathology is one of the highest paid subspecialty fields for physician assistants. The median salary is $119,000 for pathology PAs.

Pain Medicine

PAs that work in pain medicine help with the diagnosis, management, and care of patients with pain-related conditions. The majority work in office-based private practice (84 percent) and hospital settings (10 percent). Pain management PAs conduct physical examinations, perform and interpret labs and x-rays, counsel and educate patients and families, provide care coordination and make referrals. Pain management PAs have a median salary of $115,000 per year.


Psychiatry involves the diagnosis and treatment of patients with psychiatric illnesses like depression and schizophrenia. PAs that specialize in psychiatry tend to work in office-based private practice or a behavioral or mental health facility. A psychiatric PA prescribes medications for acute and chronic mental illnesses, assesses patients, makes referrals and educates and counsels patients and families. PAs who work in psychiatric settings have a median salary of $115,000 per year.

Surgical Subspecialties

The surgical subspecialties include gynecology, ophthalmology, oral, orthopedic, pediatric plastic, urology, and vascular surgery. PAs who work in surgical subspecialties assist surgeons in these various areas by performing diagnostic examinations, diagnosing conditions, prescribing medications and educating patients and families. PAs who work in surgical subspecialties have one of the highest salaries at $115,000 per year.

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