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Can a Physician’s Assistant Do Surgery?

Aspiring physician assistants (PAs) interested in becoming well-rounded members of a medical team often wonder if a physician assistant can perform surgery. Physician Assistants are highly trained professionals who work alongside doctors and nurses performing surgical procedures. Additionally, the continued shortage of primary care physicians has put PAs very much in demand.

What is a Physician Assistant?

A Physician Assistant is a licensed medical professional who has a master’s degree and completed an approved Physician Assistant program at a PA school. Certified Physician Assistants are PAs who passed a national certification exam, the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE).

PAs work alongside doctors and perform many of the same duties as doctors. Physician Assistants may work in health a clinic, hospital, or outpatient clinic. They take patient medical histories, order x-rays and tests, interpret test results, prescribe medication, diagnose patients, and discuss medical issues with the patients and their family members. They also work in many areas of medicine including:

  • Primary Care and Family Medicine
  • Emergency Medicine
  • Psychiatry
  • Orthopedics
  • Hospital Care
  • Surgery

What Can a Physician’s Assistant Do?

A physician assistant (PA) is a healthcare professional licensed to practice medicine with the supervision of a physician. And there are many tasks these professionals can do without a medical school degree. They can diagnose and treat illnesses, order and interpret diagnostic tests, and also provide patient education and counseling.

PAs can also perform physical exams, provide preventive care, and prescribe medications. Other common procedures performed by PAs are inserting IVs, cutting and draining abscesses, putting in chest tubes, and assisting the anesthesiologist nurse or surgeon team. Orthopedic PAs can make and remove casts, perform live imaging procedures like fluoroscopy, and also reduce dislocated bones.

Can a physician assistant perform surgery? No, but PAs are the first assistants in surgery. They can assist doctors during surgical procedures. Although the general surgeon typically performs complex surgeries.

How Many Years of Graduate School Do You Need to Earn a PA Degree?

Most Physician Assistant (PA) programs require a minimum of two years of college and clinical experience. Generally, the first year of the PA program is devoted to classroom-based learning, while the second year is focused on clinical rotations. Some programs may also require additional clinical experience or elective courses. Below are the common physician assistant education programs.

  • MPAS: Master of Physician Assistant Studies
  • MSPAS: Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies
  • Doctor of Medical Science (DMS) is a three-year professional doctorate for PAs

What Kind of Surgeries Do Physician Assistants Do?

Although the general surgeon typically performs surgeries, the PAs are the first assistants in surgery. PAs will do as much as the supervising physician or surgeons allows them to do. Some of the procedures commonly performed by PAs are cutting and draining abscesses, inserting IVs, putting in chest tubes, and assisting the anesthesiologist nurse and surgeon team. About 38,000 physician assistants work in surgical environments according to the American Association of Surgical Physician Assistants.

Surgical Physician Assistant Specialties

PA’s can complete a physician assistant surgical residency and focus on a surgery specialization. Part of the education required to become a physician assistant includes completing clinical work in various areas of medicine including surgery. Additionally, they can choose to focus on surgery as an area of specialization and complete a physician-assistant surgical residency. The PA can choose to work in general surgery or can choose from various areas of specialization.

The National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) offers specialty and subspecialty certificates in a variety of fields. These certificates awarded by NCCPA require a passing score on the associated certification exam. To maintain certification, PAs must complete continuing medical education every two years.

PAs may register for a Certificate of Added Qualifications (CAQs) in Cardiovascular/Thoracic Surgery, Dermatology, ER Medicine, Hospital Medicine, Nephrology, Obstetrics and Gynecology, Orthopaedic Surgery, Palliative Medicine and Hospice Care, Pediatrics, and Psychiatry.

Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery (CVTS) CAQ

The Physician Assistant Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery (CVTS) CAQ is a certification from the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). This certification recognizes the knowledge and clinical skills of PAs who specialize in the diagnosis, management, and also care of patients with cardiovascular and thoracic conditions.

The exam covers topics such as cardiovascular physiology, surgical techniques, pre-and postoperative care, and imaging. Passing the CAQ demonstrates that a PA is knowledgeable in the field and has the expertise to provide high-quality patient care.

Orthopedic Surgery CAQ

The Physician Assistant Orthopedic Surgery CAQ is a certification test from the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). This certification demonstrates that the physician assistant has the knowledge and skills to practice in the orthopedic specialty and has met the highest standards of the profession.

To earn the CAQ, the physician assistant must successfully complete a rigorous exam that covers topics such as anatomy and physiology, orthopedic surgery, patient management, medical ethics, and medical legislation. Passing this exam indicates that the physician assistant has both the knowledge and skills to provide quality and safe care in the orthopedic specialty.

Certified Physician Assistant-Surgery (PA-C-S) CAQ

The Certified Physician Assistant-Surgery (PA-C-S) CAQ is a professional credentialing program that demonstrates a physician assistant’s expertise in providing surgical services in a clinical setting. This credential is issued by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA).

To be eligible for the CAQ, physician assistants must have a current and valid NCCPA certification and have completed additional training and/or experience in the specialty area of surgery. The CAQ is valid for a period of 6 years and must be renewed every 6 years to maintain the credential.

Subspecialty Certificates

For all specialties, physician assistants work under a licensed physician who is on the premises or reachable by phone. And there are many surgical possibilities for a Physician Assistant. Surgical specialties include:

  • Critical Care
  • General Surgery
  • Trauma Surgery
  • Pediatric Surgery
  • Anesthesia
  • Burn Surgery
  • Neurosurgery Cardiothoracic Surgery
  • Ophthalmology
  • Cardiothoracic Surgery
  • Head & Neck Surgery
  • Colon Rectal Surgery
  • Transplant Surgery
  • Orthopedic Surgery Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery
  • Surgical Oncology

Career Outlook for Physician Assistants

Physician Assistant is one of the fastest-growing fields and one that continues to be in demand. Physician assistants perform many of the same duties as doctors, therefore allowing doctors more time to see patients. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that PAs should see job growth of 28 percent during the 2021 to 2031 decade. So, this should result in about 38,400 new PA jobs by 2031.

Physician assistants are highly respected in their field. They have rewarding careers whether they’re working in a clinic, treating patients in a hospital, or performing a surgical procedure. Having a physician assistant perform surgery can not only give the PA more experience but also increases and strengthens their role as part of the healthcare team.

PAs Working in Surgical Subspecialties

The number of PAs working in surgical subspecialties has been steadily increasing in recent years. Additionally, this rise in surgical physician assistants is due in part to the growing demand for surgical services and the need for highly skilled healthcare providers to meet this demand. The American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) and the BLS report that the number of PAs working in surgical subspecialties has grown by 28% over the past decade. And this trend will also continue as the healthcare system increasingly relies on PAs to provide high-quality patient care.

How Much Does a Physician Assistant Make?

The salary of a Physician Assistant depends on a variety of factors, such as location, experience, education, and specialty. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for Physician Assistants is $121,530.

Of the many areas in which physician assistants can specialize, the surgical subspecialties area ranked the 5th-highest in terms of wage potential. The National Commission on Physician Assistants reports that physician assistants who go into surgical specialties can earn an average annual wage of $113,752, which can increase with experience.

Average Annual Wage or Highest Paying States for Physician Assistant Salary (BLS)

  • Washington – $145,390
  • California – $144,520
  • Alaska – $144,460
  • Connecticut – $143,280
  • Nevada – $141,360
  • Oregon – $136,600
  • New York – $135,620
  • Texas – $132,980
  • Massachusetts – $131,920
  • New Jersey – $131,070
  • Rhode Island – $128,660

Professional Organizations and Resources

  • Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA
  • PA State Licensing Boards (more)
  • Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA)
  • American Academy of Physician Associates (AAPA)
  • National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA)