Can a Physician Assistant Do Surgery

Can a Physician Assistant Do Surgery? [Simple Answer + Full Story]

A lot of people ask if a PA can do surgery.

The short answer is yes.

But there are a variety of limitations.

In this post. I’ll share the spectrum of possibilities about how a PA can participate in surgery.

Let’s dive in. 

Can a Physician Assistant be a Surgeon?

A physician assistant can’t technically be a surgeon. But a PA can still participate in surgery.

Here’s the thing:

When you’re a PA, you can work in just about any medical specialty. But depending on what specialty you’re in, your role will vary quite a bit.

For example, when I worked in primary care (family practice), I could do just about everything that my supervising physician could do. There was practically no difference.

But surgery is a different animal.

If you go into a surgical specialty as a PA, that doesn’t mean you will be “the surgeon”. But it does mean you’ll probably participate in surgery to some degree.

So the short answer is no, a PA can’t be a surgeon. But with some limitations, a PA can still assist with surgery, and with other day-to-day aspects of a surgical practice.

Can a PA do Surgery?

So as a physician assistant, you won’t be the surgeon, but you can still potentially participate in surgery.

Here’s the catch:

Typically, when a PA works in a surgical practice, they do a lot of the “grunt work”. That means some of the unsavory tasks that the surgeon may not feel like doing.

For example, PA’s often end up rounding on the post-op patients in the hospital (which means they check on them and see how they’re doing each day).

PA rounding on the post-op patients

Physician assistants also often do some of the pre-operative evaluations of patients who haven’t had surgery yet.

In other words, PA’s take care of a lot of the stuff that happens before and after surgery. But maybe not as much of the surgery itself.

What Do Physician Assistants Do in the Operating Room?

When it comes to actual surgery in the operating room, a PA can assist the surgeon. In other words, they can be the “first assist” in the OR.

In most cases, that would be the maximum role that you could fill as a surgical PA.

Now, in some circumstances a surgeon may allow a PA a bigger role.

For example:

The surgeon might technically be in the room, but the PA could be doing most of the surgical procedure (while the surgeon is still scrubbing in for example). Or the PA could simply do most of the surgery while the surgeon watches or assists.

As you can imagine, this would vary a lot depending on the personality of the surgeon and other logistical factors. So you never really know until you know – you need to do your reconnaissance to see how the surgeon works, and what the practice is like. 

Your best bet is to shadow a surgical PA in that practice, and pick their brain about what it’s really like from moment to moment.

So while a PA can participate in surgery, and may do quite a bit of the surgery, except in rare cases there will be significant limitations.

Summary: Can a PA do Surgery?

Many PA’s work in surgical specialties.

But as a PA in surgical practice, your role will generally be limited. For instance, you may be relegated to some of the pre-op and post-op activities that the surgeon is less interested in.

In some cases, you may also assist in the operating room, and could even be quite involved in procedures (or even do the bulk of the surgical procedure). But it depends on the surgeon you’re working with. 

If doing surgery is important to you, your best bet is to learn as much as you can about the practice before you join (by shadowing, asking questions, etc). 

Here’s the bottom line:

While a PA can do surgery, and often does at least assist in surgical procedures–a PA’s role is typically limited, and they often spend more of their time doing non-surgical tasks. 

Hopefully that helps. 🙂

For more information about PA careers, here are some other blog posts you may be interested in: