How to Become a PA Specialized in Oncology

According to the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA), physician assistants specializing and practicing in oncology are versatile, skilled, and compassionate members of the cancer treatment team.

Involved in all aspects of patient care, physician assistants in oncology evaluate and examine new patients and present them to the attending physician. They manage patients who are undergoing treatment and monitor them after treatment is complete.

According to the AAPA, the addition of physician assistants to an oncology practice improves the delivery of timely and efficient treatment by helping to facilitate physician productivity. This highly respected role allows them to serve as a liaison for oncology patients and care management staff such that all members of the team are able to meet the clinical and emotional needs of their patients.

Educated and trained to provide medical care under the supervision of a physician, PAs in oncology may perform a number of duties, including:

  • Taking medical histories
  • Performing physical examinations
  • Diagnosing conditions
  • Ordering and interpreting tests
  • Developing and implementing treatment plans
  • Providing health counseling
  • Prescribing medications
  • Assisting in surgical procedures
  • Education patients and caregivers about their illnesses and treatments

Education and Training Requirements for PAs in Oncology

Individuals interested in becoming physician assistants specialized in oncology must complete a master’s degree program in physician assisting accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant. Most programs require about 3 to 4 years of biological and behavioral college prerequisite courses prior to program entry, achieved through the completion of a bachelor’s degree in biology or a related program.

Before graduates can practice medicine, however, they need to pass the national certifying examination administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) and earn state licensure.

Physician assistant master’s degree programs are about 26 months in duration, and all encompass classroom work, lab instruction, and 2,000 hours of clinical rotations in various areas of medicine, including oncology. Many students interested in oncology may also choose to complete additional elective rotations in oncology. These rotations tend to be highly selective, accepting only the top students.

Post-Graduate PA Programs in Oncology

Many students receive much of their specialty experience in oncology by completing a post-graduate PA residency in medical, surgical, and radiation oncology. Post-graduate programs span about 12 months, training PA fellows in multidisciplinary settings. The Association of Postgraduate PA Programs maintains a list of post-graduate programs.

The didactic curriculum components consist of lectures, conferences, and rounds. Many institutions offer students the opportunity to engage in oncology research, as well. The didactic, or clinical, portion of the curriculum allows for hands-on training in a variety of settings, such as clinics, emergency rooms, hospital wards, and operating rooms.
Students complete many core clinical rotations, including:

  • Breast Oncology
  • Leukemia
  • Gastrointestinal Oncology
  • Neuro-oncology
  • Thoracic Oncology
  • Gynecologic Oncology
  • Lymphoma
  • Melanoma
  • Sarcoma
  • Head and Neck Oncology
  • Stem Cell Transplant
  • Genitourinary Oncology

Specialty Certificates for Physician Assistants in Oncology

The NCCPA offers the certificate of added qualifications (CAQ) program, which allows physician assistants to gain specialty certification in a number of areas of practice. Although the NCCPA does not offer a CAQ in oncology at this time, physician assistants in oncology may choose to pursue one or more of the following CAQs, based on the settings in which they work:

  • Pediatrics CAQ
  • Hospital medicine CAQ
  • Emergency medicine CAQ

Qualified candidates must hold a PA-C designation and possess a valid, unrestricted licensed to practice as a physician assistant in at least one U.S. jurisdiction. Candidates must also pass a specialty examination and meet the following, four requirements to earn a CAQ:

  • Possess at least two years of experience
  • Possess a Category I specialty CME
  • Possess the procedures and patient case experience appropriate for the specialty for which they are applying

Additional requirements vary depending on the CAQ.

Resources for Physician Assistants in Oncology

Staying abreast of changes in the industry and networking with other oncology professionals through membership and activity in professional associations allows physician assistants in oncology to advance in their careers and serve as valuable members of the physician-led oncology team.

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