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.

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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?

Two health care professionals review medical information to align surgical operating room lights. They are dressed in green surgical scrubs with head covers and face masks.

Average salary for a surgical assistant

The national average salary for surgical assistants based on Indeed salary data is $81,407 per year. For the most up-to-date salary information, visit Indeed Salaries.

  • Salaries range from $45,005 per year to $147,250 per year

Related: What Is a Surgical First Assistant? Plus Salary and Outlook

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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 (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:

  • 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

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.

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:

You may choose which credential to pursue based on your state's regulations.

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