Physician Assistant FAQ: What is "lateral mobility?"


When pre-PA students are asked about why they want to become physician assistants, there is a term that gets thrown around a lot - "lateral mobility."  I want to explain what this mean and what it actually looks like for working PAs.  

The idea behind lateral mobility is basically a flexibility in choosing specialties, and the ability to move between specialties if desired.  For example, I work in dermatology currently, but if I ever decided that I wanted a change (not happening FYI), I could potentially move to any other area of medicine if I could find someone to hire me.  So I could go to primary care, urgent care, or even cardiology.  Because PAs are trained on a general model, the knowledge base provided in school and tested on boards is over a little bit of everything.  And even if a PA works in a certain area, we are expected to stay up to date with the other areas of medicine because the current model for recertification includes all areas of medicine.  This is not beneficial for PAs like me because dermatology only makes up 4% of the PANCE or PANRE (boards).  

This differs from physicians because at the end of their 4 years of training in medical school, they must make a choice of a specialty to pursue in order to get further training.  This includes testing, research, and a match process to find where they will train for an additional 3+ years during residency.  Some fields even require further training in fellowships that are an additional 1-3+ years.  After all of this training and time, it can be extremely difficult and time-consuming to change specialties.  

During interviews, many students will discuss this ability to change areas as the reason they want to become a physician assistant, which is fine.  In the real world, most PAs tend to choose an area and stay there, so it's not like PAs are moving around all the time.  That would require additional on the job training, and it is more ideal to gain experience and then continue in that field.  If this is a reason that you are interested in becoming a PA, it's great to mention that in your interview or personal statement, but think beyond this one factor.  Try to focus on what the profession actually entails on a daily basis and why it would be something that you enjoy on a daily basis.  

If you're a PA who has changed specialties, I would love to hear your opinion on PA flexibility.