How to Become an Orthopedic Physician Assistant

Oct 20, 2021

Learn how to become an orthopedic physician assistant. Research the job description and education requirements, and find out how to start a career as an orthopedic physician assistant.

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Should I Become an Orthopedic PA?

Orthopedic physician assistants (OPAs) should not be confused with physician assistants (PAs) in orthopedics. While both provide support to orthopedic physicians, OPA job duties are more limited than those of PAs. There are also significant differences in the regulation of the two professions and the education required to begin a career. Prospective PAs may only attend PA programs, while aspiring OPAs can gain the necessary education in an OPA program, nurse practitioner program, or PA program.

The work of OPAs can be physically and emotionally demanding, but helping patients can be rewarding. OPAs work full-time, and some evening or weekend hours may be required, depending on the needs of their employer and whether they work in a hospital versus private practice.

OPAs must have a knowledge of orthopedic medicine and be compassionate, caring, and able to perform under stress. They also need good communication skills and stamina. Let's examine the steps required to become an orthopedic physician assistant.

Degree Level Bachelor's and graduate degree
Degree Field Orthopedic physician assistant, primary care physician assistant, or nurse practitioner program
Licensure and Certification NBCOPA certification; some states require licensure
Experience Experience may be necessary to obtain certification
Key Skills Knowledge of orthopedic medicine; compassionate, caring, and able to perform under stress; good communication and stamina
Median Salary (2018) $108,610 (for all physician assistants)

Sources: National Board for Certification of Orthopedic Physician Assistants (NBCOPA), U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Graduation from a bachelor's degree program is required for most of the programs that can qualify an OPA to take the national certification exam. While a specific major is not required, applicants often need prerequisite coursework in chemistry, biology, physics, and anatomy. Students who are interested in gaining the necessary education through a nurse practitioner program may need a bachelor's degree in nursing to qualify for the program.

Additionally, most schools prefer applicants to have work or volunteer experience in healthcare before applying for graduate study. Admission requirements vary, so students should decide what type of program they want to pursue and plan to meet the admission requirements for that program. Successful applicants to PA programs have an average of four-and-a-half years of experience; other types of programs may require more or less experience.

Step 2: Complete a Graduate Program

OPA, primary care PA, and nurse practioner programs can give students the necessary instruction to become OPAs. Other types of programs may also work, but graduates may have to obtain more experience in orthopedics before qualifying for certification.

Joining the American Society of Orthopedic Physician Assistants (ASOPA) can give students access to job listings, industry updates, and a discount for the ASOPA annual meeting. Being an ASOPA member also qualifies students to get a discount on their certification exam fee and future recertification credits.

Step 3: Become a Certified OPA

Certification for OPAs can be obtained through the National Board for Certification of Orthopedic Physician Assistants (NBCOPA). Candidates must meet education or experience requirements before they're eligible to take the certification exam. The 75-question test is available at computer-based testing centers and takes two hours to complete. The exam covers specific conditions of the musculoskeletal system and corresponding treatment options. Anatomy and physiology, physical examination procedures, orthopedic history, laboratory studies, and imaging studies are also featured on the exam. NBCOPA offers an online practice test to help candidates prepare for the real exam.

Step 4: Become Licensed

Some states require licensure for OPAs. Standard application requirements include completion of an approved education program and a passing score on the NBCOPA exam. Depending on the education program completed, there may be additional experience requirements. Professionals seeking licensure should check with their state to determine the exact requirements.

Step 5: Meet Continuing Education Requirements and Maintain Licensure

To remain certified, OPAs must take continuing medical education (CME) classes. At least 120 hours of CME credits are required every four years. This ensures that OPAs expand their knowledge and get updated on new medical techniques and procedures. OPAs must also pay a recertification fee to the NBCOPA. Some states require OPAs to complete a periodic license renewal procedure which involves paying a fee, submitting evidence of CME credits, and going through an evaluation conducted by the licensing board.

Step 6: Advance in the Field

OPAs should focus on gaining experience in order to advance to a higher position with more responsibilities. After several years, OPAs may be able to take a supervisory position that allows them to guide and help less experienced OPAs as well as other staff.

In summary, orthopedic physician assistants typically must complete an OPA, primary care PA, or nurse practitioner program before earning national certification, and if needed, state licensure.

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