How to Become a Surgical Assistant in 5 Steps

Research what it takes to become a surgical assistant. Learn about education requirements, job duties, salary and job outlook to find out if this is the career for you. Schools offering Nursing degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Does a Surgical Assistant Do?

Surgical assistants perform various tasks in order to help surgeons in the operating room. They prepare the room for surgery and ensure all equipment has been sterilized prior to the procedure. During the operation, they may assist the surgeon by handing them various instruments as needed and will apply bandages and additional dressings to the site of the incision. Surgical assistants also help to bring patients back and forth from the operating room.

The following chart gives you an overview of what you need to know about entering this field.

Degree Required Bachelor's degree; graduate-level degree may be required
Education Field of Study Surgical technology or a medical-related field
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
Job Outlook (2014-2024) 15% (for surgical technologists)*
Median Salary (2015) $44,330 (for surgical technologists)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Is a Surgical Assistant?

A surgical assistant is an allied 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.

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.

Step 1: Research Career Options and Education Requirements

Surgical assisting programs vary in their admission requirements. Graduate-level certificate and degree programs in surgical assisting or physician's assisting require bachelor's or associate's degrees for admission, although undergraduate certificate and associate's degree programs in surgical first assisting are also available. Undergraduate programs do still require that you have certification and operating room experience in an allied profession, such as surgical technology, operating room nursing or physician assisting.

Whichever preliminary career you decide to pursue, you'll have multiple degree options that can all provide sufficient training to become a surgical assistant. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), surgical technology programs can last 9-24 months and may result in certificates, diplomas or associate's degrees. Registered nursing programs last 2-4 years and result in diplomas, associate's degrees or bachelor's degrees. Physician assistant programs can award certificates, associate's degrees, bachelor's degrees or master's degrees. However, physician assistant programs may require previous healthcare experience, which means that you'll have needed to complete a nursing, emergency medical technology, paramedic or related program prior to admission.

Step 2: Complete an Allied Health Program

Once you've decided which preliminary career you'd like to pursue to gain operating room experience, and you've researched the different program options, you can enroll in a training program. Allied health programs typically include both classroom and clinical instruction. Your curriculum will likely include science courses, such as microbiology, chemistry, anatomy, physiology and pharmacology. After you've completed your program, you must pass a certifying examination administered by an appropriate certifying body to gain admission to most surgical assisting programs.

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 graduating from your allied health program. 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: Complete a Surgical Assisting Program

Surgical assisting programs can 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 clearing 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 in order to recertify.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

If you're unsure that 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 require a postsecondary non-degree award before obtaining employment. Both careers are largely administrative and focus on record keeping, scheduling appointments and performing clinical tasks as needed.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

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