Surgical specialties for physician assistants

September 18, 2014

Article by Global Pre-Meds
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Pre-physician assistant clinical exposure in Tanzania If you are thinking about becoming a physician assistant and are interested in surgery, you are in luck. There are a many options for physical assistants to work with surgeons in a variety of different specialties. Some surgical specialties are harder for assistants to become involved in than others and requirements and opportunities may also vary.

Before specializing in any surgical area, those interested will need to graduate from an accredited physician assistant program.  The Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant is the organization that accredits the programs. Program admission requirements vary. For example, some schools require previous medical experience or a bachelor’s degree in order to be accepted. Program length may also vary, but many programs can be completed in about 25 months. After graduating from a physician assistant program, grads take a state exam to become licensed to practice as a physician assistant.

After obtaining a physician assistant license, you can consider which surgical specialty to pursue. There are two main ways to start working in a surgical specialty. The first is to find a job with a surgery group or a surgeon and become trained on the job. Although physician assistant students complete a clinical rotation in surgery during school, they will need more training related to the specific types of surgery performed by their supervising physicians.

The second and more common way to start working in a surgical specialty is to complete a physician assistant surgical residency. Physician assistant surgical residencies are considered post-graduate training. A residency allows an assistant to focus on his or her surgical specialty, develop skills and learn procedures needed to work in a specific type of surgery. Residency programs differ in acceptance requirements and length of time for completion.

Specialty options in surgery

If you have an interest in a specific type of medicine or caring for a certain patient population, there are many different surgical specialties to choose from, including those listed below:

Bariatric surgery: Bariatric surgery involves different surgical procedures intended for weight loss. Physician assistants may counsel and educate patients on various procedures and the pros and cons of each. They may also review medical tests to determine what procedure is best for the patient. After weight loss surgery, a special diet often needs to be followed. Along with a nutritionist, a bariatric physician assistant may help patients understand their nutritional needs. They may also monitor patients after the procedure to track their weight loss progress and watch for complications.

Colon and rectal surgery: Physician assistants who work in this surgical specialty will be caring for patients with conditions like ulcerative colitis, colon cancer and other intestine conditions that may require surgery.

Plastic and reconstructive surgery: Physician assistants who work in plastic and reconstructive surgery will care for different types of patients depending on the practice in which they work. Some practices care for patients having cosmetic plastic surgery. Other plastic surgery practices may deal with mostly reconstructive procedures, which involve repairing the appearance and function of a part of the body.  

General surgery: Physician assistants may treat a wide variety of patients who may need routine types of general surgery. General surgery may include procedures like abdominal and orthopedic surgeries.

Head and neck surgery: Head and neck surgery may be needed to treat different conditions, such as oral cancer. Physician assistants may perform a variety of procedures, such as tracheostomy tube changes and removal of foreign bodies from the ears.

Surgical oncology: A surgical oncology physician assistant cares for patients with cancer who will be undergoing surgery as part of their treatment. Physician assistant responsibilities may include assisting with procedures, from biopsies to determine if cancer is present to assisting with complex surgeries. 

Trauma surgery: Trauma surgery may be needed to treat an injury caused by various types of physical trauma to the body, such as a car accident, assault or fall. Since many different organ systems could be injured in a trauma, surgery may involve orthopedic, urology and vascular procedures.

Transplant surgery: Organ transplantation involves removing a diseased or poorly functioning organ and replacing it with an organ from a donor. Organs, such as the heart, liver and kidneys, are transplanted to treat a variety of serious medical conditions. Physician assistants may perform tests before a patient has a transplant to make sure he or she is a good candidate for the procedure. After a transplant, assistants may play a key role in educating patients on managing their conditions and health post-transplant.

Roles and responsibilities

Whichever surgical specialty you decide to pursue, you may be doing a large variety of tasks. The surgical physician assistant will likely have responsibilities in the office, hospital and the operating room.

Before surgery, you may be providing patients with information about the procedure and preoperative instructions. You may also be ordering and reviewing tests before the surgery to make sure the patient is an appropriate candidate for the procedure. 

Surgical physician assistants may also perform certain procedures depending on the type of practices in which they work. For instance, colon and rectal surgical physician assistants may perform a procedure called a colonoscopy, which involves checking the intestines for pre-cancerous polyps.

During surgery, the role of a surgical physician assistant will vary depending on the type of procedure and the preference of the supervising doctor. Some physician assistants will perform duties in the operating room including clamping blood vessels, cutting sutures, holding instruments and other procedures as assigned by the supervising doctor. 

The responsibilities of a physician assistant specializing in surgery do not end in the operating room. Additional duties may include writing orders for the patient while they are in the recovery room. Assistants will also examine and monitor patients as they recover from their surgeries. Physician assistants may also answer patients’ questions after procedures and provide patients with discharge instructions.

As with many specialties, surgical physician assistants also have some administrative responsibilities, such as writing progress notes and charting on patients.  Assistants may also attend rounds on patients in the hospital and participate in research projects.