How to become a plastic surgery nurse
Plastic surgery isn’t just about elective modifications to one’s body and appearance. Although plastic surgery nurses certainly do work with these kinds of procedures, they only scratch the surface of what plastic surgery nursing entails.
Plastic surgery also reconstructs and reconfigures tissue to address certain diseases and traumatic injuries, including severe burns, congenital anomalies, amputations and much, much more. As a plastic surgery nurse, you could get the chance to help people reclaim or discover a quality of life that has otherwise been affected by various conditions.
What is plastic surgery nursing?
Plastic surgeons are tissue experts—they repair and reconfigure tissue to address a variety of concerns, from elective procedures like breast implants to facial reconstruction following a traumatic event and everything in between.
“It’s very inclusive. There isn’t one age group we don’t take care of, and we take care of every part of the body, so there’s a lot of diversity and variety in the specialty. Even within the specialty of plastic surgery, it could include dermatology, facial plastics—which falls under the umbrella of ENT (ears, nose and throat)—ocular plastics which is ophthalmology and even burns. It really is very encompassing,” said Pamela Messina, a plastic surgery nurse and member of the International Society of Plastic and Aesthetic Nurses (ISPAN) Board of Directors.
“It’s also very multidisciplinary, so you will coordinate with all the other specialties. Given that we work on every body part, there isn’t another specialty that we’re not often coordinating care with.”
Plastic surgery vs. aesthetic nurses
Plastic surgery nurses are not the same as aesthetic/cosmetic nurses, but these two specialties do share some overlap. Many aspects of aesthetic/cosmetic nursing fall under the umbrella of plastic surgery nursing, such as aesthetic injectables (e.g. Botox), laser and light therapies (e.g. laser hair reduction) and clinical skin care. However, these kinds of treatments are the entire focus of aesthetic/cosmetic nurses.
“We overlap in the non-surgical arena. All the injectables (e.g. Botox), the dermal fillers— that is an overlap. Where we differ is we do the surgery. An aesthetic nurse can take a patient up to a certain point, but they don’t do the surgical end of things,” Messina said.
How to become a plastic surgery nurse
Earn a nursing degree.
Nurses must graduate from an accredited nursing program in order to get licensed. An associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN) are the two types of degree programs that you can choose from. There are also several bridge and accelerated degree programs for people that already have some nursing experience (as a licensed practical nurse or EMT, for example) or a degree in another subject area.
Get licensed as an RN.
Nursing graduates must pass the NCLEX-RN exam to qualify for a nursing license. This test is typically taken shortly after graduation. First, you need to apply for a license with your state’s nursing regulatory body (NRB), a process which varies slightly from state to state. Check with your NRB to find out how to apply for a license and register for the NCLEX exam.
You’ll need to gain experience and hone your skills before you can get certified in your specialty. In order to qualify for the plastic surgery nursing certification, you’ll need at least two years of plastic surgery nursing experience under your belt.
RNs that meet the experience qualifications can sit for the Certified Plastic Surgical Nurse (CPSN) exam administered by the Plastic Surgical Nursing Certification Board (PSNCB). Getting certified is a worthwhile endeavor which validates your expertise and could lead to better jobs with a higher pay within your specialty.
What do plastic surgery nurses do?
Plastic surgery nurses do many of the same tasks that are true of all nurses in most settings, including:
Just some of the types of procedures that plastic surgery nurses perform or assist with include:
Messina said that every nurse’s job is going to vary a bit depending on where they work. As a nurse in a private practice office, Messina said that her job is quite different than a plastic surgery nurse working at a hospital, for example.
“Being a plastic surgery nurse in the office space setting is very unique in that you have total independence and autonomy. You answer only to the physician that you work for. You don’t have all the rules and regulations of hospital-based medicine, and you don’t have that hierarchy of leadership that people working in an institution would have,” Messina said. “Office space nursing is good for the person who really wants to be autonomous, that wants be a leader and doesn’t need a lot of direction. You’re not functioning freely of course, but you know how to take the ball and run with it.”
Where do they work?
Who should become a plastic surgery nurse?
Plastic surgery nursing can be a great fit for someone who wants to work in a specialty with a lot of variety and potentially a great deal of autonomy if you move into an office-based setting.
“I would say anybody who is highly organized, seeks independence and autonomy, is patient, compassionate, empathetic, enthusiastic, has good communication and marketing skills. Marketing is important for plastic surgery.” Messina explained that since a significant portion of the procedures they do is not covered by insurance, nurses must be able to explain what those procedures can do for someone without pressuring them to get something done that they don’t really want.
Requirements to become a plastic surgery nurse
Nurses of all kinds, regardless of intended specialty, must graduate from an accredited nursing program in order to get an RN license. Two-year associate degrees in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN), which typically takes four years to complete, are the two main options for new nurses. Associate degrees cost less because they are shorter, but bachelor’s degrees are preferred or required by some employers. Both degrees, however, are perfectly acceptable paths to licensure.
There are other degree options for people with prior nursing experience, such as licensed practical nurses (LPNs/LVNs), which take into account the skills and education they already have. For those who already have a degree in another area and who are making a career change, they may benefit from an accelerated bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN), which awards you a BSN in less time, typically between one and two years.
All nurses should consider getting certified in a specialty area. Certification demonstrates your commitment to your specialty and the experience you’ve gained in your area of practice. On top of that, certifications are valued by employers and could lead to better jobs with higher salaries.
Plastic surgery nurses can become a Certified Plastic Surgical Nurse (CPSN) through the Plastic Surgical Nursing Certification Board (PSNCB). Nurses must pass an examination to get this certification, but they must meet the following requirements in order to sit for the exam:
“I am a firm believer you should be certified in whatever specialty you embark upon,” Messina said. “Get your get your certification to show that you’ve become an expert in that field. Your patients want to know it, you want to feel it. I think it helps you with your confidence in doing what you’re doing, knowing that hey, I made the grade.”
“I am a firm believer you should be certified in whatever specialty you embark upon,” Messina said.
What to expect as a plastic surgery nurse
In addition to the sheer diversity of procedures, patient demographics and the other specialties you’ll collaborate with frequently, Messina said there are many benefits to working as a plastic surgery nurse.
“Especially in the private setting, plastics is pretty much nine-to five,” Messina said. “I think the biggest pro is that it can be completely fulfilling to know that you will have a profound effect on your patients you care for. You come in with somebody who has a horrible burn scar deformity, and you do all these reconstructive procedures, and you know you make a profound difference in their lives.”
Messina also said she enjoys an immense amount of variety in her day-to-day routine. “For me, no, two days are the same. Every day of the week I’m doing something different.”
Plastic surgery nursing also has its fair share of unique challenges, particularly in the contrast between elective and nonelective procedures.
“…it can be completely fulfilling to know that you will have a profound effect on your patients you care for.”
“The patient signing up for elective cosmetic surgery is by far more anxious than the patient who has to have surgery.” While it may seem paradoxical, Messina explained that a patient opting for elective surgery is almost always going to be more anxious because although they’re already healthy, now they’re taking on all the risks that come with surgery. On the other hand, someone who must have surgery or else they’ll be left with some kind of deformity is much more likely to say yes to a procedure without hesitation.
Plastic surgery nurses should also be aware of how to approach patients differently depending on why they are seeing them. A patient coming in for an elective procedure is healthy and well, and probably pretty happy. A patient that is there by necessity, however, may have experienced some form of trauma and intense physical and emotional distress. This is going to influence the tone of the interactions with that patient.
Salary and job growth
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not compile salary data on specific nurse specialties. They do report, however, that the median annual salary for registered nurses is $81,220 according to their 2022 Occupational Employment Statistics.
The BLS also estimates that the employment of RNs will grow 5.6% through 2032, about as fast as average across all occupations.
Frequently asked questions (FAQ)
What is the importance of patient education and counseling in the role of a plastic surgery nurse?
Like other nurses, plastic surgery nurses are expected to educate patients about procedures, including their benefits, risks and other alternatives. Nurses must also answer any questions the patient may have. Patient education also consists of giving patients various resources and further reading, instructions for at-home care and more.
What are the latest advancements and technologies in the field of plastic surgery nursing?
The American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) has a directory of plastic surgeons and a collection of resources all about the latest procedures and advancements in plastic surgery.
What strategies do plastic surgery nurses employ to minimize the risk of scarring and promote optimal wound healing after plastic surgery?
One strategy that plastic surgery nurses and physicians use to treat scarring is a procedure called tissue expansion, in which patients “grow” additional skin that can be used for reconstruction on other parts of the body. Messina also said that hypertrophic or keloid scars often need steroid injections to manage them and promote healing.
What are some of the ethical considerations and dilemmas that plastic surgery nurses may encounter in their practice, and how do they navigate them?
Since many procedures that plastic surgery nurses deal with are elected by the patient and are not imperatively necessary, plastic surgery nurses may encounter ethical issues surrounding informed consent. It is essential that plastic surgery nurses and physicians provide patients with all relevant information pertaining to a procedure so that the patient can make a completely informed decision.
ISPAN’s position on informed consent states that they, “recognize the importance of protecting the legal rights of patients and maintaining the ethics of healthcare through the practice of informed consent. Informed consent is ‘a process by which a patient or participant voluntarily confirms his or her willingness for a proposed medical treatment or non-treatment after having been informed of all aspects of the plan that are relevant to the participant’s decision to participate.’”
Published: July 24, 2023