Orthopedic Career Opportunities
Orthopedics is the medical specialty that cares for the musculoskeletal system. This includes taking care of the bones, joints, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and nerves that make the framework of our bodies.
Being involved in the care of the musculoskeletal system does not necessarily mean you have to be an orthopedic surgeon. There are a number of different career opportunities within orthopedics that can allow you the opportunity to participate in the care of the musculoskeletal system. Trying to find the best fit for you depends on a number of factors including:
- How much time you want to spend educating yourself
- The hours you are willing to work
- The compensation you expect
- Your personality
For many people, the last of those criteria may be the most important. If you pick a career path that does not align with your personality, you are going to have a hard time. That said, if you find an option that suits your personality, and aligns with your strengths, orthopedics can be a perfect fit for just about any type of person.
Being an orthopedic surgeon is the most obvious career for those interested in orthopedic health care. While it may not be the only option, there are a number of opportunities for people who become orthopedic surgeons.
Within the field of orthopedic surgery, there is an opportunity to specialize and focus your career on a specific subset of patients. While some orthopedic surgeons may choose to have a general orthopedic practice, many will pursue further specialization. Some of these specialties may include:
- Pediatric orthopedics
- Sports medicine
- Hand surgery
- Joint replacement
- Foot and ankle surgery
- Orthopedic oncology (bone tumors)
- Spine surgery
- Orthopedic trauma
These are just some of the possible areas of specialization. As mentioned, some orthopedic surgeons choose to have a general practice, and while they may not see every type of orthopedic patient, they are willing and able to care for the majority of orthopedic injuries.
Orthopedic surgeons must first complete their bachelor's degree, followed by four years of medical school, then followed by a five-year orthopedic surgery residency program. Upon the completion of residency, additional training in a specialty area may be pursued. Most orthopedic surgeons will choose to become board-certified orthopedic surgeons upon the completion of their training.
Orthopedic surgery is highly competitive and requires interested individuals to demonstrate a high level of academic performance, and an interest in the orthopedic field. Many people who choose orthopedic surgery will often have previous experience in a healthcare field either as an entry-level career, or summer internships.
Physician assistants are becoming increasingly utilized within the field of orthopedic surgery. Because there are not enough orthopedic surgeons available, many health systems have turned to the physician assistants to help increase the number of providers available. While physician assistants do not have the autonomy of a physician, they are able to provide many of the same services.
Physician assistants will often work closely with an orthopedic surgeon to help with a variety of types of patient care. This may include assisting in the operating room, rounding on patients in the hospital, seeing patients in the office, and managing the behind the scenes aspects of patient care along with a supervising physician.
Physician assistants can write prescriptions, perform some basic medical procedures, and evaluate patients who have orthopedic needs. The education for a physician assistant is a master's degree that is typically a 2-3 year program following the completion of a bachelor's degree.
Physical Therapist/Therapy Assistant
Physical therapists are an essential aspect of recovery from an orthopedic condition to just about any patient. Whether you are recovering from an injury, undergoing elective surgery, or dealing with chronic pain, restoring normal body mechanics and function often requires the attention of a skilled physical therapist.
Following an injury or surgery, there is undoubtedly stiffness and weakness that develops within the body. Even if an injury heals, if we do not recover normal function of the movement of our body, it is hard for us to feel normal. Physical therapists can help to develop treatment plans and work closely with patients to restore normal body mechanics.
Physical therapists can be appropriately licensed with a bachelor's degree followed by a certification examination, although many physical therapists will also pursue advanced degrees such as masters or doctoral degrees. Physical therapists work very closely with patients, often several times per week, and often for months at a time. Furthermore, physical therapists may develop a following of patients to see them periodically when they have an injury, so there is often a continuity of care they can last many years. Physical therapy is an active career that often attracts athletic individuals.
Athletic trainers are typically thought of in the context of professional or collegiate sports teams, but they are increasingly being utilized within orthopedic surgeon offices and hospital settings. Because many orthopedic patients are injured in the context of athletic events, the utilization of athletic trainers within the healthcare setting is a natural fit.
Athletic trainers have a minimum of a bachelor's degree, but often obtained a master's degree in athletic training. Becoming a certified athletic trainer requires not only the necessary degree but also passing an examination that tests the 6 practice domains of athletic training.
Athletic trainers can be used to assist with rehabilitation following sports injuries, but also to assist with the various aspects of patient care within an orthopedic practice or urgent care setting. They are often used to augment the role of a physical therapist with activities such as crutch training, rehab activities, and patient education. Athletic trainers have good interpersonal skills, but also a love for the athletic side of healthcare and the patients who consider themselves athletes—no matter what level.
Surgical Technologist (Scrub Tech)
A surgical scrub technician is a member of the team of individuals who helps to care for a patient while they are in an operating room. The surgical scrub tech helps to manage the sterile equipment within an operating room.
Training to become a scrub tech is often accomplished at a community college or technical school, and the degree usually takes about two years to complete. Upon completion of the program, a scrub technician will usually work for a health system or surgical center.
A scrub technician is a critical member of the team of individuals taking care of patients while they are having surgery. Scrub technicians must become familiar with the equipment used in the operating room, and are often asked by the surgeon for critical pieces of medical equipment that need to be available immediately. Scrub technicians are generally meticulous individuals who are well-prepared, and unflappable at critical times.
A casting technician is an individual who works in an orthopedic office and helps to apply casts, remove cast material, and often will assist with the fitting of braces and other medical equipment used by orthopedic surgeons.
As is the case with surgical technicians, most casting technician certification programs are offered through community colleges or technical schools. Upon certification, cast techs are often employed within an orthopedic surgeon's office. While orthopedic surgeons are trained to apply casts, especially in busier offices a cast technician will perform these duties. Many experienced cast technicians apply a better cast than an orthopedic surgeon.
Casting technicians are able to interact with patients and often get to know individual patients reasonably well as they follow them through an episode of care, applying, removing, and changing casts and bandages until they are healed. Casting technicians should have an easy-going personality and enjoy the interaction with their patients.
Those in the nursing profession, with a variety of different degrees, are all able to participate in the care of orthopedic patients. Within the inpatient setting of a hospital, most people think of nurses as the clinical caregivers at the bedside of a hospitalized patient. But there are also other roles the nurses can play in the care of orthopedic patients.
In the operating room, nurses are typically present to help care for patients before, during, and after a surgical procedure. Nursing options are available for people interested in surgery who may want the flexibility of participating in multiple different roles, rather than a single aspect of care that technical programs, such as becoming a surgical technologist.
In an outpatient orthopedic facility, nurses are often the managers of an office or orthopedic practice. Nurses are increasingly taking roles with titles such as "orthopedic navigator" where they help patients manage transitions of care. For example, many hospitals and orthopedic practices will create pathways for people undergoing joint replacement surgery. These pathways include presurgical education, inpatient hospital care, and postoperative rehabilitation. Orthopedic navigators can help patients prepare and understand how they will move along these pathways.
Lastly, nurse practitioners are often used in a role similar to a physician assistant where they can evaluate patients, assist with in-hospital care of patients, and assist during surgical procedures. The opportunities available to nurses generally depend on the level of certification that they have achieved.