How Can I Become a Surgical Physician Assistant?

Research what it takes to become a surgical physician assistant. Learn about licensure, certification and education requirements, along with salary information to find out if this is the career for you. Schools offering Allied Health degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is a Surgical Physician Assistant?

A surgical physician assistant is a certified physician assistant (PA) who works in a surgery department. As a surgical PA, you will work closely with surgeons and other members of the healthcare team before, during and after surgical procedures. Prior to the surgery, you may be responsible for reviewing the patient's history and running diagnostic tests to determine the necessary surgical treatment. You will also directly assist the surgeon during the procedure itself, and afterward, you may monitor the patient's condition and describe any necessary post-operative medications, such as painkillers.

Take a look at the following chart for an overview of how to enter this field.

Degree Required Master's degree preferred
Education Field of Study Physician assistant studies
Key Responsibilities Meet with pre-operative patients to assess medical histories, arrange preliminary tests or medications, serve as a first or second assistant during surgery, provide patient care after surgery
Licensure Licensure required in all states and D.C.
Job Growth (2014-2024) 30% for all physician assistants*
Median Salary (2016) $96,661**

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **

Get Your Degree to Work as a Surgical Physician Assistant

Completing your training to become a surgical physician assistant (PA) is a multi-step process that requires an educational program, licensing and continuing education. You will need to complete a program that is accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on the Education for the Physician Assistant, but you must first have at least two years of prerequisite college-level courses in science and behavioral science. You may be more competitive in the application process if you have already earned a bachelor's degree and have a few years of experience in healthcare.

PA programs take a little more than two years to complete, and you can often find options in 4-year universities, medical schools or allied health schools. Your education will focus mostly on classroom instruction during the first year, wherein you will learn the basics about medicine and science through courses such as anatomy, physiology, biochemistry and pharmacology. PAs perform a variety of diagnostic and treatment services, so the clinical experience you will gain during the last half of the program should teach you how to apply techniques to treat patients in real medical situations. You will rotate through several areas of medicine, including surgery, which is a key component of PA training.

Get Certified

The laws that govern the authority that a PA has to practice medicine and prescribe medications vary, but every state requires PAs to earn a license before working. You will need to pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE), which is administered by the state's medical licensing board or a dedicated PA licensing board. The test measures your knowledge of medical and surgical procedures, and you must graduate from an accredited education program in order to qualify to take the test. In some states, you may be able to begin practicing as a new graduate before you have taken the exam.

When you pass the exam, you can then begin to use the PA-C (Physician Assistant-Certified) credential. Your credentials will be valid for six years, but you will have to complete certain steps to maintain your license for that period. Every two years, you must complete 100 hours of specialized continuing education and re-register your license. At the end of the 6-year period, you will need to take a re-certification exam.

Use Your Skills

Surgical PAs serve as key members of the surgical team. You will be involved with the entire process, working with patients before and after surgery. The specific duties you may perform will depend on the type of surgery you focus on, such as general surgery, orthopedic or cardiovascular.

You may meet with pre-operative patients to assess their medical histories and arrange preliminary tests or medications. You will communicate with patients prior to their surgeries to inform them of the procedures and answer any questions they may have. During the surgery, you will work closely with the surgeon. You may serve as a first or second assistant and be directly involved with the steps of the procedure.

Following the surgery, you will provide care for the patient, according to the doctor's orders. You may need to maintain the patient's medical devices or control medications. Following up with the patient while recovering in the hospital or even after being dismissed will also be an important part of your post-operative care.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Individuals who are interested in surgery may consider becoming surgeons themselves. However, it is important to note that surgeons must attend medical school and complete a residency before they can practice in the field. Another option is to work as a physician assistant in a different setting; for instance, some PAs work with primary care providers in family clinics. Some physician assistants also find jobs conducting research into new treatments, either in surgery or other medical specialties. If you want to enter a different healthcare field that requires a master's degree, you might look into work as a nurse practitioner. These professionals provide advanced care for patients and may also supervise registered nurses and licensed professional nurses.

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