How to Become a Surgical Physician's Assistant

Jan 02, 2019

Learn how to become a surgical physician assistant. Research the education requirements, licensure information, and experience required for starting a career as a surgical physician assistant. View article »

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  • 0:00 Surgical PA Career Info
  • 1:07 Earn a Bachelor's Degree
  • 1:55 Gain Experience in Heatlhcare
  • 2:14 Attend a PA Program
  • 2:49 Get Certified and Licensed
  • 3:45 Complete an Optional Residency

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Video Transcript

Surgical Physician Assistant Career Info

Surgical physician assistants work under the supervision of a surgeon, providing care for patients before and after surgery and assisting the surgeon in the operating room. Surgical physician assistants provide various services, such as closing incisions, doing physical exams, interpreting diagnostic tests, and counseling patients and families about treatment.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Master's degree
Degree Field Physician assistant
Experience 1,000 to 4,000 hours of patient care experience required for PA program admission
Licensure and Certification Licensure required by all states; completion of certification exam required for licensure
Key Skills Attention to detail, compassion, emotional stability, communication and problem-solving skills
Median Salary (2015)* $98,180 (for all physician assistants)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)*, American Academy of Physician Aassistants

Surgical physician assistants usually work in hospitals on a full-time basis. Their schedules often include long, irregular hours that may surpass 40 hours a week. The job requires assistants to spend most of their working time on their feet, sometimes standing in one place for hours at a time in surgery. The job of helping to save lives is highly rewarding, stressful, and emotional. These professionals should have strong attention to detail, compassion, emotional stability, communication skills, and problem-solving skills. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2015, all physician assistants (PAs) earned a median annual salary of $98,180.

Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Before aspiring surgical physician assistants can enroll in a PA program, they must typically earn a bachelor's degree. While PA programs accept most undergraduate majors, they generally require specific prerequisites in the areas of mathematics, life sciences, and psychology. College-level coursework in anatomy, physiology, microbiology, chemistry, and calculus, among other subjects, needs to be completed prior to entering a PA program. Some programs require an undergraduate GPA of 3.0 or higher.

Choosing a bachelor's degree program that offers experience in healthcare can also be helpful. Since PA programs require students to have healthcare experience, students should take coursework and complete any other requirements that will allow them to gain work experience in the healthcare field.

Step 2: Gain Experience Working in Healthcare

Most PA programs require students to have prior experience in healthcare settings. Programs may not specify any particular requirements, but admissions are competitive, and top PA programs often require 1,000 to 4,000 hours of patient care experience, according to the American Academy of Physician Assistants.

Step 3: Attend a Physician Assistant Program

Students should choose a program that is accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). PA programs take approximately two years to complete and usually award master's degrees. Students take courses in basic health sciences and clinical medicine the first year, with the second year focusing on clinical experiences in a series of core and elective rotations. Areas of study include obstetrics and gynecology, internal medicine, pediatrics, family medicine, surgery, and emergency medicine.

Step 4: Get Certified and Licensed

All graduates must sit for the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) in order to become licensed. The exam is administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA), the only non-profit credentialing organization in the United States for PAs (www.nccpa.net). Upon passing the exam, graduates must submit an application for licensure in the state in which they want to practice. Candidates for licensure generally must submit evidence of finishing an accredited PA program with the required number of clinical hours as well as show that they've passed the PANCE.

Every two years, PAs must submit documentation of 100 credits of continuing medical education coursework and pay a certification maintenance fee. PAs must also demonstrate their continuing competency by taking a recertification exam every 10 years.

Step 6: Complete an Optional Surgical Residency

Several universities and teaching hospitals offer 12-month postgraduate surgical residencies for PAs. These programs offer intensive training in surgery through labs, seminars, lectures, and a clinical phase in which PAs are assigned duties pertaining to the operating room and to perioperative patient care. These programs are full-time and may require up to 70 hours of work per week. Surgical PAs who complete postgraduate residencies might have more opportunities for career advancement in specialized areas.

Aspiring surgical physician assistants, or surgical PAs, must first complete a bachelor's degree before they can be admitted into a PA program, complete the required hours of healthcare experience, and eventually gain licensure.

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