Clinical UM Guideline
Subject: Assistant Surgeons
Guideline #: CG-SURG-50 Publish Date: 07/06/2022
Status: Reviewed Last Review Date: 05/12/2022
Description

This document addresses use of an assistant during surgical procedures. An assistant at surgery refers to a licensed professional who actively participates with the operating surgeon who is performing a surgical procedure. This document does not address use of a co-surgeon or team of surgeons.

Clinical Indications

Medically Necessary:

Use of one assistant surgeon during a surgical procedure may be considered medically necessary when the following criteria are met:

  1. The American College of Surgeons (ACS) has designated a procedure as “always” requiring an assistant surgeon; or
  2. ACS has designated a procedure as “sometimes” requiring an assistant surgeon and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) have designated the procedure as “always” requiring an assistant surgeon; or
  3. There is documented evidence that the procedure requires assistance due to the complexity of the procedure or health status of the individual and both the ACS and CMS have designated a procedure as “sometimes” requiring an assistant surgeon.

Not Medically Necessary:

The use of an assistant surgeon during surgery is considered not medically necessary for the following:

  1. The surgical procedure is designated as “never” requiring an assistant surgeon by the ACS;
  2. ACS has designated the procedure as “sometimes” requiring an assistant surgeon and CMS has designated the procedure as “never” requiring an assistant surgeon;
  3. The procedure could be assisted by a surgical technician and there is no documented need for an assistant surgeon’s level of training and expertise.
Discussion/General Information

ACS (2013) has defined an assistant surgeon as someone “who is able to participate in and actively assist the surgeon in completing the operation safely and expeditiously by helping to provide exposure, maintain hemostasis, and serve other technical functions.” An assistant surgeon generally refers to a medical doctor (MD), Doctor of Podiatric Medicine (D.P.M.), Doctor of Dental Surgery (D.D.S.), or Doctor of Osteopathy (D.O.). ACS indicates that at times, it may also be appropriate to use other licensed allied health professionals such as a physician’s assistant (PA), clinical nurse specialist (CNS), nurse practitioner (NP) or registered nurse first assistant (RNFA).

ACS has determined that assistant surgeon services are required for the successful completion of certain surgical procedures that have been identified as sufficiently complex or intensive in the sixth edition of their study, Physicians as Assistants at Surgery (2020*), which was developed in collaboration with 15 other specialty societies. The study was undertaken by examining all of the codes listed in the American Medical Associations (AMA) Current Procedural Terminology (CPT TM) 2020. The organizations in collaboration with the ACS, were asked to review each code and indicate if surgical procedures required the use of an assistant surgeon “almost always,” “almost never,” or “sometimes.”

Similar to the ACS, CMS has designated surgical procedures as “always,” “sometimes,” or “never” requiring a surgical assistant based on the frequency of use documented in the CMS Medicare Physician Fee Schedule (MPFS) database (also referred to as the Relative Value File). The list is applicable to first assistants, MDs, PAs and NPs.

*If there is a more recent version available of the ACS’s Physicians as Assistants at Surgery publication, it supersedes the version and link listed in the Reference section of this document.

Definitions

Assistant surgeon: A practitioner who actively assists the operating surgeon. An assistant may be necessary because of the complex nature of the procedure(s) or the individual’s condition. The assistant surgeon is usually trained in the same specialty.

Co-surgeons: Two or more surgeons, where the skills of both surgeons are necessary to perform distinct parts of a specific operative procedure.

Team of surgeons: More than two surgeons, usually of different specialties, where the skills of each are necessary to perform distinct parts of a specific operative procedure.

References

Peer Reviewed Publications:

  1. Deery SE, O'Donnell TFX, Zettervall SL, et al. Use of an assistant surgeon does not mitigate the effect of lead surgeon volume on outcomes following open repair of intact abdominal aortic aneurysms. Eur J Vasc Endovasc Surg. 2018; 55(5):714-719.

Government Agency, Medical Society, and Other Authoritative Publications:

  1. American College of Surgeons. Physicians as assistants at surgery: 2020 study. Available at: https://www.facs.org/-/media/files/advocacy/pubs/2020-physicians-as-assistants-at-surgery-consensus.ashx. Accessed on March 17, 2022.
  2. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Physician Fee Schedule (PFS) Relative Value Files Available at: http://www.cms.gov/Medicare/Medicare-Fee-for-Service-Payment/PhysicianFeeSched/PFS-Relative-Value-Files.html. Accessed on March 17, 2022.
History

Status

Date

Action

Reviewed

05/12/2022

Medical Policy & Technology Assessment Committee (MPTAC) review. Updated References section.

Reviewed

05/13/2021

MPTAC review. Updated Discussion/General Information and References sections.

Reviewed

05/14/2020

MPTAC review. Updated Discussion/General Information and References sections.

Reviewed

06/06/2019

MPTAC review. Updated References section.

Reviewed

07/26/2018

MPTAC review. The document header wording updated from “Current Effective Date” to “Publish Date.” Updated Discussion/General Information and References sections.

Reviewed

08/03/2017

MPTAC review. Updated Discussion/General Information and References sections.

Reviewed

08/04/2016

MPTAC review. Updated Discussion/General Information and References sections.

New

08/06/2015

MPTAC review. Initial document development.


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