How To Become a Surgical Assistant (Plus Salary and Job Description)
Updated March 10, 2023
A surgical assistant (SA) has a demanding job and plays a vital role in health care. Besides meeting certain educational requirements, SAs must meet additional legal requirements before they can receive certification.
In this article, you'll learn about what a surgical assistant does, how much they can earn, how to become a surgical assistant and find answers to top questions about the profession.
What does a surgical assistant do?
A surgical assistant is a medical professional who works under a surgeon's supervision before, during and after various types of surgeries. A surgical assistant's duties may include:
Confirming the operation with the surgeon
Selecting reference X-rays
Advising, informing and comforting the patient before surgery
Preparing an operating room for surgery by making sure that the proper surgical equipment is in the room and sterilizing the equipment
Moving patients into the operating room and positioning patients before surgeries
Ensuring that the room remains sterile
Handing the correct instruments and supplies to the surgeon when requested
Running equipment during surgeries
Sterilizing, marking, opening and closing surgical sites on the patient
Harvesting grafts for the patient
Reading and recording a patient's vital signs
Performing life-saving maneuvers in case of emergency
Applying bandages to the patient immediately following surgery
Moving patients to recovery rooms or intensive care units once the surgeries have concluded
Surgical assistants play a critical role in caring for patients. In performing their duties, surgical assistants minimize patients' risks for issues like nerve damage and decreased circulation.
Average salary for a surgical assistant
Salaries range from $45,005 per year to $147,250 per year
How to become a surgical assistant
Choose a preliminary career path.
Meet certain education requirements.
Gain experience in the surgical field.
Enroll in a surgical assisting program.
While you will need to enroll in a surgical assisting program as part of your path to becoming a surgical assistant, there are a series of decisions you will need to make beforehand. This is what your career path should look like:
1. Choose a preliminary career path
Some surgical assistants may start out as surgical technicians, registered nurses or physician assistants. You will need to choose one of these professions, enroll in the appropriate program and obtain a degree.
2. Meet certain education requirements
You will need to earn an associate degree or bachelor's degree in a related medical field as a prerequisite. There will likely be a 3.0 minimum grade point average (GPA) requirement.
3. Gain experience in the surgical field
After obtaining your degree, you will need to find a job that allows you to work in operating rooms. Depending on the surgical assisting program you apply to, you will likely need to have at least three years of operating room experience. Alternatively, if you have experience as a military medic, you may also qualify for a surgical assisting program.
4. Enroll in a surgical assisting program
During your instruction, you will learn about microbiology, anesthesia and pharmacology, among other related fields. A surgical assisting program will take 10 to 22 months to complete and you will receive a certificate, but you will need to meet even more stringent requirements. Additionally, you will need to pass a physical exam, earn certification in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), obtain health insurance, receive vaccinations, and pass a drug test.
5. Earn certification
Certification is required for surgical assistants. You can receive certification through one of three organizations:
You will have to renew your certification every two years for the NSAA or ABSA and after January 1, 2020, surgical assistants who received their certification from the NBSTSA will need to recertify every two years.
Frequently asked questions
How long does it take to become a surgeon assistant?
It may take at least five or six years to complete training and education to become a surgeon assistant.
An associate degree program will take about two years to complete, while a bachelor's degree program can take three to four years to complete.
If you earn an associate degree program only, you will need to have at least three years of experience in an operating room.
A surgeon assistant program takes roughly one to two years to complete.
Does a surgical assistant need to certify with the NBSTSA, the NSAA, and the ABSA?
Surgical assistants only need certification from one organization at a time. However, each of these organizations offers different credentials:
The NBSTSA offers the Certified Surgical First Assistant (CSFA) exam and credential, as well as an exam and credential for surgical technicians.
The NSAA has the Certified Surgical Assistant (CSA) credential.
People who apply for an exam with ABSA can earn their Surgical Assistant-Certified (SA-C) credential.
You may choose which credential to pursue based on your state's regulations.
Does my state recognize the surgical assistant profession?
Most states recognize surgical assistants, but New York and New Jersey have barred SAs from working in those states. In California, there are few opportunities for SAs.
Are there any other challenges I might face as a surgical assistant?
In addition to the strict guidelines for becoming a SA, you will have to find an insurance company that will cover you. As a medical professional, you will need liability insurance, but not all insurance companies recognize SAs.
What are the skills one needs to become a surgical assistant?
A surgical assistant must have the following skills:
Attention to detail
Surgical assistants must make quick decisions to ensure the safety of patients based upon detailed information. Monitoring a patient's vital signs and making sure that the surgeon has the proper equipment and X-rays involves attentiveness.
Read more: How To Become More Detail-Oriented at Work
Surgical assistants are in constant contact with surgeons and must be able to effectively communicate with and comfort patients.
Surgical assistants must be able to multitask. During surgery, they not only, make sure that the surgeon is using the correct equipment; but also, that they are monitoring the patient and making sure that the operating room remains sterile.
Read more: Multitasking Skills: Definition and Examples
Many surgical assistants start as surgical technicians which requires them to operate medical equipment during surgeries. Reading patients' vital signs also requires technical knowledge since that task is also done with the assistance of machines. Additionally, surgical assistants must know how to resuscitate patients, which involves knowledge of CPR, among other things.
What is a surgical assistant's work environment like?
Surgical assistants usually work in hospitals that contain surgical wards and operating rooms. These assistants also commonly work in trauma and emergency care centers. Within these medical facilities, surgical assistants are commonly found in recovery rooms and intensive care units and often stand for long periods of time.
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