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How to Become a Surgical Assistant in 5 Steps

Learn how to become a surgical assistant. Read about surgical assistant education requirements, prerequisite career options, job duties, and salary to find out if this is the career for you.

What Does a Surgical Assistant Do?

A surgical assistant is a health professional who works under the direction of a surgeon and assists in performing technical surgical functions, such as retracting tissues and organs, cutting tissue, draining fluids, inserting and removing catheters, placing tourniquets, closing wounds and performing resuscitation as needed. During the operation, you may assist the surgeon by handing them various instruments. They apply bandages and additional dressings to the site of the incision. Other duties you may perform as a surgical assistant include selecting the appropriate instruments for each procedure, positioning and draping patients, confirming the procedure with the surgeon and selecting reference x-rays. You may assist in a specific type of surgery, such as orthopedic, obstetrical, craniofacial, cardiac, plastic, vascular or trauma surgery. You'll play an integral role in minimizing a patient's risk for nerve damage, decreased circulation and other health problems during his or her procedure.

Surgical Assistant Requirements and Job Facts

Degree Required Associate's or bachelor's degree as prerequisite
Graduation from surgical assistant program
Education Field of Study Surgical assisting
Prerequisites Experience in a surgery-related career (surgical tech, registered nurse, physician assistant) before enrolling in a surgical assistant program
Key Responsibilities Prepare patients for surgery
Prepare operating room for procedure
Assist surgical team with sutures, tissues retraction, cauterization and other procedures
Certification Certification required
Mean Salary (2019) $115,000*

Source: *Salary.com

How to Become a Surgical Assistant: 5 Steps

Step 1: Research Surgical Assistant Education Requirements

A surgical assistant is an advanced medical position requiring experience in a preliminary career involving surgery. Surgical assistants often begin their careers as surgical technologists, gaining operating room experience before attending a surgical assisting program. Other common routes to a surgical assistant position include first working as a registered nurse (RN) or physician assistant (PA).

Surgical assisting programs vary in their admission requirements but typically require at least an associate's degree if not a bachelor's degree, as well as experience working in a surgical environment. Experience as a military medic may also qualify an individual for a surgical assistant program. If you wish to pursue a career as a surgical assistant, you must first choose a preliminary field and obtain education, certification, and experience working in that career.

Step 2: Pursue Prerequisite Education

Once you've decided which preliminary career you'd like to pursue to gain operating room experience, you can enroll in a degree or training program to become a surgical technologist, RN, or PA. These programs typically include both classroom and clinical instruction. Your curriculum will likely include science courses such as microbiology, chemistry, anatomy, physiology and pharmacology, as well as hands-on experience working with patients and equipment.

Step 3: Gain Operating Room Experience

Most surgical assisting programs require operating room experience as a prerequisite, so you'll need to find employment after obtaining your preliminary degree. Some programs require at least three years of operating room experience. You should form good relationships with your employer and surgeons that you work with, since you may need to obtain letters of recommendation from them.

Step 4: Obtain a Surgical Assistant Degree or Certificate

Surgical assisting programs take 1-2 years to complete, and they typically result in a certificate upon completion. Coursework may include microbiology, anesthesia methods, pharmacology and wound closure techniques. You'll also receive clinical instruction in surgical assisting. Additional requirements may include passing a physical exam, earning cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) certification, obtaining health insurance, getting vaccinated and passing a drug screening.

Step 5: Earn Certification

Certification in surgical assisting is offered by the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA), the National Surgical Assistant Association (NSAA) and the American Board of Surgical Assistants (ABSA). Each of these organizations requires that you periodically renew your certification. You may need to earn continuing education credits or take an examination to recertify.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

If you're unsure whether becoming a surgical assistant is right for you, but are interested in pursuing a career in the medical field, you may want to consider becoming a dental assistant or medical assistant. Each of these professionals only requires a postsecondary non-degree award. Both careers are largely administrative and focus on record keeping, scheduling appointments and performing clinical tasks as needed.