Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery Physician Assistants

Are you a physician assistant (PA) or aspiring PA who is interested in working with patients getting procedures related to heart, lung, esophageal, and other chest related issues? Specializing in cardiovascular and thoracic surgery may be the right move for you! One way to stand out in the field as well equipped for this specific specialty is by earning a Certificate of Added Qualifications (CAQ) in cardiovascular and thoracic surgery. If you are interested in earning this credential, you will need to spend years preparing in order to meet the requirements, which includes the equivalent of two years of full time practice in the specialty! Read this guide to learn more about how to earn this credential and why it might benefit your career.

What is a Certificate of Added Qualification?

A CAQ from the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) shows that a PA has earned a high level of experience in a specialty of medicine, while maintaining that they have a knowledge base in primary care. These credentials are voluntary (not required to practice in the specialty) as to prevent automatic changes to credentialing requirements in hospital settings, while giving PAs who do want to stand out the opportunity to do so.

How to Earn a Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery Certificate of Added Qualifications as a Physician Assistant (PA)

Looking to add a CAQ from the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) in cardiovascular and thoracic surgery to your resume? Here are some common steps to consider:

Step 1: Become a Certified Physician Assistant 

In order to become further credentialed in a specific specialty of the PA field, you will naturally need to be a PA who is licensed to practice in at least one state. License must be valid and, if multiple licenses are held, all must be unrestricted. If you are not currently a PA and are interested in this career path, learn more about how to become a licensed PA.

Step 2: Earn Continuing Medical Education (CME) Credits

In order to prepare to take the specialty exam and earn a CAQ in cardiovascular and thoracic surgery, a PA must receive relevant education in the specialty through CME credits. Within six years of sitting for the specialty exam, you will need to earn 75 credits related to the specialty (Category I), 25 of which must be earned in the two years preceding the test. These credits can go towards renewal of your general PA certification.

The individual CMEs will not blatantly state whether they fulfill the requirement for the cardiovascular specialty or not – you will need to use your best judgment to determine which topics are relevant to the practice. According to the NCCPA, you should look for credits that cover “post-op critical care management, and surgical management of coronary artery disease, congenital heart disease, thoracic disease, and central and peripheral vascular disease”.

Step 3: Earn Enough Experience Working as a PA in the Area of Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery

While you are earning CME credits, you will also be needing to gain a large amount of experience practicing as a PA within the cardiovascular and thoracic surgery specialty. Within the six years preceding your application for certification, you will need to have logged 4,000 hours in this area. If audited, you will need to produce proof that you meet experience requirements, which equate to two years of full time practice.

As you are earning your experience, keep in mind that part of the certification process will involve an attestation from a qualifying professional in the specialty stating that you have performed the relevant procedures, managed patients relevant to the setting, and understand when certain procedures should be performed. To ensure that you can procure this attestation, make sure to gain experience with the following:

  • Anesthesia, including local, procedural, endotracheal intubation, and conscious sedation
  • Wound management, debridement, incision, drainage, and closure
  • Diagnostic and therapeutic Procedures, including:
    • Swan-Ganz placement
    • Chest tube placement and removal
    • CVP and arterial line placement
    • Pleurodesis
    • Thoracentesis
    • Pacer wire placement and removal
    • Removal of epicardial wire
    • Transcutaneous pacing
    • Insertion of PIC and PICC line
    • Placement of intravenous line
    • Placement and removal of intra-aortic balloon pump
    • Placement of feeding and nasogastric tubes
    • Bronchoalveolar lavage and bronchoscopy
    • Management of epicardial pacemakers
    • Pericardiocentesis
  • Diagnostic modalities such as MRI, CT scans, x-rays, and ultrasonography, echocardiography, and electrocardiography
  • Operative and perioperative care, including bedside care, consultation, evaluation, vessel harvesting, surgical assist, sternal and thoracotomy closure, decannulation from cardiopulmonary bypass, oran procurement, and post-op care and management
  • Cardiopulmonary resuscitation

Check for more information about the CAQ from the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) to make sure you are best prepared to get all the relevant experience you need.

Step 4: Take the Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery Specialty Exam

Once you meet all of the other requirements, you can sit for the specialty exam which consists of 120 multiple choice questions. Tests are offered in the spring and fall at Pearson VUE test centers.

There is a $250 fee associated with taking the exam.

Step 5: Submit Attestation that You Meet the Procedures and Patient Case Requirement

As mentioned in Step 3, you will need to get an attestation from a relevant professional in the specialty who has worked with you (physician, lead/senior PA, or physician/PA post graduate program director) that you have both performed and understand the procedure and patient requirements listed in Step 3. This attestation must be submitted within 90 days after receiving your score for the CAQ exam.

Step 6: Start the CAQ Application Process

You can initiate the CAQ application process as soon as you are able to submit one of the components (CME credits, experience, procedure and patient case attestation, or exam). You can also wait until you are ready to submit all of the requirements. Once you submit a component along with a $100 fee, you will need to complete the components within a six year timeframe.

Why Earn a CAQ in Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery?

PAs with CAQ qualifications report a variety of benefits, according to  survey information on the CAQ from the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA):

Career Advancement

Seventy-five percent of PAs with this certification report that they have found or expect to find a new job, and 40% have been successfully promoted.

Increased Compensation

A majority of PAs with this certification have or expect to receive an increase in pay, and one-third received a cash bonus.

Increased Respect

Two-thirds of PAs with this certification report more respect from patients and three-fourths report more respect from other healthcare professionals as a result of the certification.

Broadened Responsibilities

Six out of ten earners of this certification expect their job responsibilities to broaden as a result.

Last updated January 2022.