Physician Assistant (Surgery): How to Become a Surgery Assistant

Learn how to become a surgery assistant. Research the job description and the education and licensing requirements, and find out how to start a career in surgical assisting.

Do I Want to Be a Surgery Assistant?

Surgical physician assistants (PAs) extend the services of surgeons by providing patient care before and after surgery. They may also assist surgeons in the operating room. Other services that surgical PAs may provide include physical exams, closing incisions, interpreting diagnostic tests and counseling patients about treatment.

Surgery assistants work full-time jobs that often include night and weekend shifts as well as overtime. Surgery assistants spend a lot of time on their feet, sometimes standing for hours on end in operating rooms. The career is high stress, can be physically demanding, and carries an emotional toll, but helping people with injuries or illness can be rewarding.

Job Requirements

Surgical PAs work under the supervision of a surgeon and must be licensed in every state. They undergo the same training as PAs in other specialty areas, including completing a bachelor's degree, work experience and a PA program. Some surgical PAs also choose to complete a surgery residency. The following table presents the requirements for beginning a career as a surgical PA:

Common Requirements
Degree Level Master's degree or equivalent PA program*
Degree Field Physician assistant*
Licensure Licensure is required by all states and the District of Columbia*
Experience 4.5 years of experience is usually required to be a competitive candidate for a PA program**
Key Skills Attention to detail, ability to work on a team, compassion*
Computer Skills Ability to use spreadsheet, word processing and medical software
Technical Skills Knowledge of medical equipment used in surgery, such as surgical clamps, forceps and accessories
Additional Requirements Medical knowledge, good bedside manner***

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **American Association of Surgical Physician Assistants, ***O*NET OnLine.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

A requirement for entering a PA program is a bachelor's degree. PA programs do not require any particular undergraduate major, but they do have specific course prerequisites. Prospective PAs should plan to complete coursework in calculus, physics, chemistry, biology and psychology. It is also important to maintain a GPA of 3.0 or higher, since this is a requirement of many PA programs.

Success Tip:

  • Take courses to prepare you for a job in healthcare. Applicants to PA programs need to have work experience in healthcare. Undergraduate students can plan for this by taking any prerequisites necessary to get a job as a registered nurse, paramedic, diagnostic imaging technician or whatever role they hope to fill while getting experience before their PA program.

Step 2: Gain Experience Working in Healthcare

The American Association of Surgical Physician Assistants states that successful applicants to PA programs have an average of 4.5 years of health care experience ( Many programs do not have a specific number of years of experience that are required, but admissions are often competitive, so applicants will need to demonstrate that they are well-prepared for the field. Depending on a student's undergraduate major, he or she could pursue a job in nursing, medical assisting or any other healthcare-related job.

Step 3: Attend a Physician Assistant Program

The Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA) accredits PA programs. It is important that students attend an accredited PA program in order to ensure that they are able to get certified and licensed. Most PA programs award a master's degree after two years of study. The first year of a PA program consists of didactic coursework, and the second year is spent completing clinical rotations in various areas of medicine. Some areas that a student may gain experience in are internal medicine, emergency medicine, pediatrics and obstetrics and gynecology.

Step 4: Earn Certification

To become certified by the NCCPA, graduates of PA programs must take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE). The multiple-choice exam is administered on computers at testing sites across the U.S. In addition to the PANCE, which is a general certification exam for all types of PAs, surgery assistants can also take certification exams that specifically apply to their specialty. Both the National Surgical Assistant Association (NSAA) and the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA) offer specialized certification to surgery assistants who pass an organization's examinations and meet education and experience requirements.

Step 5: Apply for Licensure

After an individual has passed the NCCPA exam, he or she becomes certified and is eligible to apply for state licensure. In addition to submitting a passing score on the PANCE, licensure candidates need to provide evidence of completing an approved PA program with the required number of supervised clinical hours.

Step 6: Complete an Optional Surgical Residency

PAs specializing in surgery may want to complete a surgery residency. Full-time residencies are offered at several universities and teaching hospitals. They usually last for 12 months and could require up to 70 hours of work per week. During the residency, PAs gain intensive training through completing labs, seminars, lectures and clinical work. PAs could be paid a stipend while they are in the program.

Step 7: Complete Required Continuing Education to Maintain Certification

PAs must complete 100 credits of continuing medical education every two years in order to maintain certification. A certification maintenance fee is also required by the NCCPA. Every six years, PAs must also take a recertification exam to demonstrate their continued competency. The NCCPA will begin transitioning PAs to a 10-year recertification cycle in 2014.

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