An orthopedic physician assistant is a type of care provider that works primarily as an orthopedic surgical assistant, but physician assistants can also work in the orthopedics specialty in different areas. Orthopedics can be a fascinating and rewarding specialty for physician assistants to pursue, but it’s important to do your research before pursuing either career path. To become a physician assistant specializing in orthopedics, you’ll need to first and then pursue a PA residency. There are a few orthopedic PA residency and fellowship programs in the US, but they are among the most competitive residencies to get into! If you want to become an orthopedic physician assistant, you’ll need extensive on the job training instead. In this article, we’ll look at the orthopedic physician assistant profession, how it’s different from a physician assistant in orthopedics, and tips on how to pursue either career path!
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To start, it’s important to cover the distinction between a physician assistant (PA) who works in orthopedics as a specialty, and an orthopedic physician assistant (OPA). The similarities and differences between these two can be much like the differences between .
What is an Orthopedic Physician Assistant (OPA)?
An orthopedic physician assistant specializes in orthopedic care and surgery and works as a surgical assistant to orthopedic surgeons. However, unlike a licensed, practicing PA, orthopedic physician assistants are largely unregulated in the US, with a few exceptions in certain states. They are considered surgical assistants and orthopedic technologists, but they are not recognized as Medicare and Medicaid care providers like their PA counterparts.
To become licensed as an OPA, you must first receive training as an assistant to an orthopedic surgeon and earn a minimum of 5 years of on-the-job training in orthopaedic disease and injury, operating room techniques, cast application and removal, prosthetics and orthotics. From there, you can take the OPA licensing exam developed by the National Board for Certification of Orthopaedic Physician Assistants (NBCOPA) and become an OPA-C.
So, although becoming an orthopedic physician assistant is a specialized type of PA, there are distinct differences in job responsibilities and permissions. For instance, OPAs are not allowed to prescribe medications.
What is a Physician Assistant (PA)?
A physician assistant can work in orthopedic medicine, just like any other specialty. The difference is, PAs are regulated in all 50 states, and they are recognized healthcare providers in the US. They attend physician assistant education programs accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the PA, including some of the .
Once they’ve taken the national PA certifying examination administered by the National Commission on Certification of PAs (NCCPA), they become licensed as a PA-C.
As part of their roles, PAs can examine and diagnose patients, order tests or labs, prescribe medications and assist with various medical procedures. They work in collaboration with physicians and other medical staff to provide patient care, including in the field of orthopedics.
Like many PAs, orthopedic PAs enjoy a high level of job satisfaction. As an orthopedic physician assistant you are actively contributing to helping patients get well, assisting with surgery and recovery or working in a clinic or hospital with an orthopedic surgeon. You’ll enjoy working with a variety of patients and encounter many diverse problems to be solved. The work of an orthopedic PA can be challenging and stimulating, so it’s a good option for those who enjoy working in the surgical suite or who want a job that offers them diversity every day.
On the other side of things, some cons of becoming an orthopedic PA include long hours and a huge volume of work to be completed. Compared to other PA positions, you might find your days are not the typical 9 to 5 work hours and that you’re on call more often. You can also expect to pick up some work on weekends and evenings, so there is not always a great work-life balance in this specialty. Lastly, you’ll have fewer options than licensed PAs who have graduated from an accredited program to move within the profession or change specialties. You won’t have the same level of independence and responsibility as a PA in orthopedics, either.
As a profession, PA is one that is rapidly growing and is seeing an increasing demand. You’ll have a fair amount of autonomy and independence, but you’ll spend significantly fewer years in school than say, an orthopedic surgeon. Plus, you’ll enjoy a high level of job stability and high pay.
PAs who specialize in orthopedics are among the highest-paid PA specialists out there, with an average salary over $220,000 per year. In comparison, OPAs make around $65,000 per year, as they don’t go through the same level of education or certification.
Your decision of whether to become an orthopedic physician assistant or to become a PA who specializes in orthopedics may come down how long it takes to become a PA, your timeline, budget, personal preferences or career goals.
Here’s a quick summary of the differences between an OPA and a PA:
For physician assistants who are interested in pursuing a postgraduate PA residency or fellowship program to specialize in orthopedic surgery, there are only a handful. Orthopedic surgery, like , is one of the more competitive to get into. With even fewer PA-centered programs available, you’ll really need an excellent application to get accepted.
- Riverside University Health System Orthopedic Surgery Physician Assistant Fellowship
- Arrowhead Orthopaedic’s PA Orthopaedic Surgery Fellowship
- Texas Children’s Hospital Orthopedic Physician Assistant Fellowship
- Carilion Clinic Orthopedic Surgery PA Residency
- DMC Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine Orthopedic Surgery PA Residency
- Illinois Bone and Joint Institute Orthopedic Surgery PA Residency
- Navy PA Graduate Training: Orthopedics
- UCSF Fresno Orthopedic Surgery PA Residency
- Duke University School of Medicine Orthopedic PA Residency
- Loma Linda University Faculty Medical Group Orthopaedic Physician Assistant Post Graduate Residency Program
- Peach Tree Orthopedics Orthopaedic Physician Assistant Fellowship
Once again, there are some distinct differences in job responsibilities and abilities for PAs in orthopedics and OPAs. While the two professionals will possess many of the same skills and work in similar roles, the key differences come down to individual state regulations and individual orthopedic care centers.
Since OPAs are largely unregulated, they cannot prescribe medication to patients or operate with the same level of independence as PAs who work in the orthopedics specialty. While there is some overlap between the two professions, OPAs have significantly fewer responsibilities and permissions.
Because these two professions are so different, despite their similar names, the pathway to becoming either one are also quite diverse. Next, we’ll walk you through how to become an OPA or a PA specializing in orthopedics, so you can get a full view of the journey you’ll need to take. Plus, learn some tips on how to get into your dream career.
How to Become an Orthopedic Physician Assistant
The journey to becoming an orthopedic physician assistant is quite close to becoming a PA, but it involves less hours in the classroom and more hands-on learning. Here are the basic steps to becoming an OPA:
There are no higher education requirements for OPAs to complete, whereas a PA will need to complete a 2-year graduate program in physician assistant studies. OPAs complete most of their training on-the-job and can voluntarily choose to get certified after they’ve completed the requirements necessary to take the certification test. Some states also require OPAs to take a licensing exam in order to practice.
To get experience, the best way is to find work in a healthcare setting. Many of the common are great starting points if you want to become an OPA. Experience is your best currency, especially if you want to advance in the field, get certified or find higher paying positions as an OPA. You may also choose to apply to a physician assistant program later on, so having some experience under your belt will help your application to stand out.
If you do decide to continue your education and become a physician assistant in orthopedics instead, use your experience and professional connections to your advantage. Get excellent recommendation letters from the physicians you’ve worked with, demonstrate that you already have PA experience and skills, and write in your personal statement about why you are making the switch to a PA program.
How to Become a PA Specializing in Orthopedics
To become a physician assistant specializing in orthopedics, you’ll need to complete several steps:
To apply to any of the PA programs in the US, you’ll typically be using the . To apply to , you’ll submit an application directly to the program. For any application to PA school, you’ll need to meet all the . These include submitting:
- Your college transcripts
- GRE or PA-CAT scores
- PA personal statement
- Recommendation letters for PA school
While an orthopedic physician assistant and a physician assistant in orthopedics sound like one and the same, they are two very different career paths. The former is a niche sort of surgical assistant who can contribute positively to orthopedic patient care, but is largely unregulated and doesn’t operate as an independent care provider.
A physician assistant in orthopedics is a highly educated and trained medical professional who works in the orthopedics specialty. They are regulated, licensed and able to operate with a higher level of authority and independence.
The choice of which career path to pursue will largely depend on your career goals and what you want to accomplish in orthopedic medicine. Be sure to research both professions thoroughly and consider your own preferences before making your final choice!
1. What is an orthopedic physician assistant?
An orthopedic physician assistant is akin to an orthopedic surgical assistant and orthopedic technologist. A physician assistant who specializes in orthopedics, however, is a highly educated and trained health care provider who assists orthopedic surgeons and provides care to orthopedic patients.
2. What can an orthopedic physician assistant do?
An orthopedic physician assistant assists in orthopedic surgery, applies or removes casts and sutures, and assists with hospital rounds or on call. Unlike PAs, they are mainly unregulated and cannot prescribe medications or perform orthopedic procedures on their own.
3. Are orthopedic physician assistant programs competitive?
Yes, orthopedics is one of the most competitive residency programs, even among PAs. For PA graduates wanting to apply for postgraduate training, there are few orthopedic residencies out there, and they only accept a few residents every year.
4. Do I need postgraduate training to become an orthopedic physician assistant?
To become an OPA, you do not need a graduate degree or postgraduate training. If you want to become a PA who specializes in orthopedics, enrolling in a postgraduate training program is also optional, but recommended if you want to apply for competitive positions or earn a higher pay.
5. How much are orthopedic physician assistants paid?
Orthopedic physician assistants, or surgical assistants, are paid an average of $65,000 per year in the US. Physician assistants who have graduated from an accredited program and specialize in orthopedics make significantly more at $220,000 per year.
6. How long does it take to become an orthopedic physician assistant?
The time it takes to become an orthopedic physician assistant can vary depending on your career path. First, you’ll need to complete a bachelor’s degree (4 years) and start gaining some experience in healthcare. If you choose to enroll in a graduate physician assistant program you’ll be adding 2 years to the timeline, plus 1 year if you decide to pursue postgraduate training in an orthopedic residency or fellowship program.
7. What’s the difference between a PA in orthopedics and an orthopedic PA?
While they sound very similar, they are two distinct careers. A PA in orthopedics is a licensed and recognized Medicare and Medicaid care provider who operates with a fair degree of independence, can prescribe medication in most states and can perform some orthopedic procedures alone. An orthopedic PA or OPA is largely unregulated and is more akin to a surgical assistant.
8. How do I become an orthopedic physician assistant?
To become an orthopedic physician assistant, you’ll need two things: a bachelor’s degree (a major in one of the sciences is recommended) and plenty of healthcare experience. Most OPAs complete on-the-job training but having some experience working in hospitals or health care centers will help you land a position in orthopedics.