Becoming a cardiothoracic physician assistant

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Pre-physician assistant clinical exposure in Tanzania Physician assistants who are interested in working in surgery have several options, including cardiothoracic surgery. Cardiothoracic surgery involves operations on the lungs, heart and the chest wall. It is used to treat several conditions, such as blockages in the vessels to the heart, lung cancer and leaking heart valves.

The role of a cardiothoracic physician assistant

A cardiothoracic physician assistant works with a cardiothoracic doctor. The responsibilities of a cardiothoracic physician assistant may vary, but in many instances, the assistant will care for the patient before, during and after a surgical procedure. Before surgery, a physician assistant may explain the procedure, answer questions and perform routine pre-operative tests.

During a surgical procedure, physician assistants do not perform the surgery. Instead, as the name implies, they assist the surgeon in a variety of ways. Physician assistants may perform certain procedures, such as inserting chest tubes or draining fluid from the lungs. Additional duties may include placing intravenous lines in the arteries or veins to draw blood or give medication.

Cardiothoracic physician assistants also care for patients after surgical procedures. Assistants may round on patients, which involves doctors and nurses going from room to room to discuss the plan of care for the patient and any problems which need to be addressed. Other responsibilities may include performing patient exams, monitoring recovery after surgery and ordering and reviewing lab tests. Physician assistants in this specialty may also assist with discharging the patient, which means writing prescriptions for medications for home use and explaining discharge instructions to the patient. 

Training involved

If you are interested in becoming a cardiothoracic physician assistant, you will need to complete a physician assistant training program.  The admission requirements for physician assistant programs vary. Some programs require applicants have a bachelor’s degree while others will accept students with an associate degree.

Undergraduate classes in biology, anatomy and chemistry are usually required. Some programs also require students to have some previous medical experience, such as being a paramedic or nurse.

Although program length may vary, many physician assistant programs are about 25 months long. Classes will often include pharmacology, anatomy, biochemistry and medical ethics. Students will also complete clinical rotations in various areas of medicine including internal medicine, pediatrics, emergency medicine, general surgery and family practice. Although the number of clinical hours needed may vary by program, typically, 2000 hours of supervised clinical experience must be completed.

After graduating, a surgical physician assistant residency is usually the route most people take if they want to work in cardiothoracic surgery. Although it is not required by law, most physician assistants who want to go into surgery complete a post-graduate residency, which is often a year long. An alternate route is to find a cardiothoracic surgeon who will hire you directly out of physician assistant school and provide extensive training and mentoring.

Traits needed

Cardiothoracic physician assistants need to be able to work well independently. Although they work under the direction of a surgeon, they often do not work in the presence of the doctor, who may be busy elsewhere. Physician assistants in this specialty also need to have good judgment and problem-solving skills. Steady hands and stamina are also helpful, as surgery can often take several hours. 

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