Steps to Become an Orthopedic Physician Assistant

Learn about careers in orthopedic physician assisting. Below, you'll find the educational and certification requirements for two positions in this field in addition to job outlook and salary info. Schools offering Allied Health degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

Careers at a Glance

Healthcare professionals who work with orthopedic physicians can assist with surgical procedures, remove casts and sutures, and conduct hospital rounds, among other tasks. Two careers that fit this description include physician assistant in orthopedics (PA) and orthopedic physician assistant (OPA). While sounding similar, these are actually two different professions with different educational requirements. Find out more details in the table below.

Physician Assistant in Orthopedics Orthopedic Physician Assistant
Degree Required Master's degree in physician assisting None, but a minimum 2 years of college work in science is recommended
Certification/Licensing Mandatory state licensing Voluntary certification through the NBCOPA
Job Growth (2016-2026) 37% (All physician assistants)* 12% (All surgical technologists)*
Median Annual Salary (2018) $108,610 (All physician assistants)* $47,300 (All surgical technologists)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Do PAs and OPAs Do?

While some of the duties of PAs and OPAs can overlap, these are distinctly different roles. PAs have a much wider range of responsibilities and are qualified to diagnose and treat conditions and prescribe medications for patients. OPAs work directly under the supervision of an orthopedic surgeon in a more supportive role.

Physician assistants in orthopedics may remove sutures and casts, interpret MRIs and lab test results, determine whether a patient needs physical therapy, and write up referrals, as well as perform outpatient procedures, such as tendon repairs and wound closures.

OPAs, on the other hand, are largely employed as surgical assistants or orthopedic technologists. Their responsibilities are more limited than those of PAs, albeit some duties overlap, such as removal of casts and checking on patients.

What Education Do I Need to Become a PA or OPA?

PAs typically need a bachelor's degree and a master's degree earned as part of a two-year physician assistant education program. Subjects in graduate programs include human anatomy, physiology, pharmacology and physical diagnosis as well as clinical training in areas such as internal medicine, emergency medicine, and pediatrics.

There are no specific higher education requirements for OPAs, but at least two years of college work in the sciences is recommended.

Do I Need Additional Experience?

Aspiring PAs typically need to show patient care experience in order to be admitted to PA university programs. This experience could be gained by working as a paramedic or other related profession or by volunteering in hospitals.

OPAs receive on-the-job training. However, many of these professionals already have related experience in fields such as nursing and emergency medicine.

Do I Need to Get Certified or Licensed?

State licensing is mandatory for physician assistants. This entails passing a certification exam through the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). In order to remain certified, professionals need to meet continuing education requirements every two years and sit for a recertification exam every 10 years.

The National Board for Certification of Orthopedic Physician's Assistants (NBCOPA) offers voluntary certification for OPAs. Applicants for the exam need to have completed a related training program, such as an allied health, PA, or nurse practitioner program. They also need a minimum of five years' worth of work experience in orthopedics. Once they are certified they are allowed to use the initials OPA-C after their names.

What Income and Job Growth Can I Expect?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not have specific figures for physician assistants in orthopedics, but the median annual wage for physician assistants in general was $108,610 in 2018, with incomes ranging from $69,120 to $151,850. The expected job growth is above average, at 37% from 2016 to 2026, as demand will increase in line with a growing and aging population.

The BLS also does not have specific details for orthopedic physician assistants, but the American Academy of PAs says that OPAs are typically employed as surgical assistants or technologists. The median annual wage for surgical technologists was $47,300 in 2018. A job growth of 12% was projected for these professionals between 2016 and 2026 by the BLS.

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