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How to Become an Operating Room Assistant in 5 Steps

Research what it takes to become an operating room assistant. Learn about job duties, education requirements, and certification to find out if this is the career for you.

What Does an Operating Room Assistant Do?

Operating room assistants help surgeons and other medical personnel during medical operations. Their responsibilities include preparing equipment and helping surgeons dress before the operation. They also hand off equipment and instruments while monitoring patient vitals during surgery. Post-operative job duties can include resupplying operating rooms and bandaging patients. Most importantly, these professionals are in charge of ensuring surgeries happen in a sterile environment, keeping potential contaminants away from the operating room and the patient.

Take a look over the chart below for an overview of this profession.

Education Required Postsecondary certificate or associate's degree
Key Responsibilities Assist surgeons and other medical workers, set up instrument trays and supplies, restock supplies, and check and monitor patients' vital signs
Licensure/Certification Certification required in some states and preferred by some employers
Job Growth (2018-2028) 9% (for surgical technologists)*
Median Salary (2018) $47,300 (for surgical technologists)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Is an Operating Room Assistant?

An operating room assistant, also referred to as a surgical technologist, is a medical worker who performs multiple support tasks before, during, and after surgery. You might set up instrument trays and supplies, clean the operating room, and help surgical team members scrub and dress before an operation begins. During an operation you might drape the patient, hand supplies and instruments to surgeons, monitor the patient's vital signs, and monitor conditions in the operating room. Your duties after an operation might include bandaging patients, restocking the operating room, and shutting down and storing equipment, such as suction machines, heart monitors, and lights.

Step 1: Prepare in High School

Courses in biology, chemistry, and mathematics can help develop your background knowledge in the natural sciences, which you can then adapt to the medical field. English courses can improve your verbal and written communication skills. Computer courses can teach you to use health information technology applications and software programs used in the healthcare industry. Finally, admission into training programs for operating room assistants typically require a high school diploma or GED.

Step 2: Earn a Certificate or Associate's Degree

Surgical technician or surgical technologist programs that train you to function competently in an operating room are available from community and vocational colleges at the certificate and associate's degree levels. Associate's degree and certificate programs have similar medical content, but associate's degree programs include general education courses, such as math, English, and history. In both types of programs, the curriculum is divided between classroom instruction, labs, and clinical internship courses. Possible course topics include anatomy and physiology, operating room procedures, medical terminology, and surgical technology.

Step 3: Consider Certification

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), certification isn't necessary, but most employers prefer it (www.bls.gov). As an entry-level assistant, you have at least two options. The National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA) offers the Certified Surgical Technologist (CST) designation, and the National Center for Competency Testing offers the Tech in Surgery-Certified (TS-C) designation.

The CST exam consists of 175 scored questions and 25 practice questions in the areas of per-operative care, intra-operative procedures, equipment sterilization, and basic science. The TS-C exam will test your knowledge of medical terminology, infection control, pharmacology, and perioperative procedures. Eligibility requirements for both designations include graduation from an accredited training program.

Step 4: Pursue a Job

A majority of your employment prospects are in hospital operating rooms and delivery rooms, according to the BLS. Offices of physicians, offices of dentists, and outpatient clinics provide a smaller number of opportunities. Individual surgeons might also consider employing you directly as a member of their surgical team. The BLS estimates that around 112,100 people were employed as operating room assistants in 2018. Employment was predicted to rise to about 121,800 over the 2018-2028 decade. As of May 2018, surgical technologists earned a median salary of $47,300.

Step 5: Advance Your Career

With additional training you could rise to become the first assistant on a surgical team. The NBSTSA offers the Certified Surgical First Assistant (CSFA) credential to CSTs who have participated in at least 350 operations and have two years of first assistant experience. You could also focus on specialty areas, such as cardiac, oncologic or bariatric surgery. Transitioning into a sale position with medical equipment firms, medical supply firms or insurance companies is another possibility. Finally, you could manage a hospital's supply department.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Dental assistants provide rudimentary patient care in addition to scheduling appointments and taking X-rays prior to dentists seeing a patient. Medical assistants record basic medical information about a patient, such as condition and vitals, for doctors and may assist during examinations, take blood or urine samples, and schedule future appointments.