How To Become a Surgical Assistant (Plus Salary and Job Description)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated June 8, 2022 | Published February 4, 2020

Updated June 8, 2022

Published February 4, 2020

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

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 will 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.

The average salary for a surgical assistant

The national average salary for surgical assistants based on Indeed salary data is $78,494 per year. For the most up-to-date salary information, visit Indeed Salaries.

  • Common salary in the U.S.: $20 per hour

  • Salaries range from $7.25 to $53.65 per hour.

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

  • Inserting catheters

  • Placing tourniquets

  • 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.

Read more: Surgical Technologist vs. Surgical Assistant: What’s the Difference?

How to become a surgical assistant

  1. Choose a preliminary career path.

  2. Meet certain education requirements.

  3. Gain experience in the surgical field.

  4. Enroll in a surgical assisting program.

  5. Earn certification.

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.

Related: Surgical Technician vs. RN: Duties, Education and Salaries

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 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' 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:

  • The National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA)

  • The National Surgical Assistant Association (NSAA)

  • The American Board of Surgical Assistants (ABSA).

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.

Related: Learn About Being a Surgical Assistant

FAQs about the surgical assistant profession

Some questions people may have about the surgical assistant profession include:

  • How long does it take to become a surgical assistant?

  • Which career paths are closely related to surgical assistants?

  • Does a surgical assistant need to certify with the NBSTSA, the NSAA, and the ABSA?

  • Does my state recognize the surgical assistant profession?

  • Are there any other challenges I might face as a surgical assistant?

  • What are the skills one needs to become a surgical assistant?

  • What is a surgical assistant's work environment like?

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.

Which career paths are closely related to surgical assistants?

Some related career paths in this field include:

  • Surgeon

  • Surgical technician

  • Registered nurse

  • Physician's assistant

  • Dental assistant

  • Medical assistant

Related: 12 Healthcare Jobs That Pay Well

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

Communication

Surgical assistants are in constant contact with surgeons and must be able to effectively communicate with and comfort patients.

Related: Communication Skills for Career Success

Multitasking

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

Technical knowledge

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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