Surgical Assistant Career Guide

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What Is a Surgical Assistant?

A surgical assistant is a specialized member of the operating room team who provides critical support and hands-on aid to surgeons during operations of all kinds. These skilled healthcare professionals are close to the action and play a direct role in ensuring patients receive high-quality care during surgical procedures.

This career demands hands-on dexterity, technological skill, and a team approach. The OR is a highly specialized environment, and surgical assistants are vital to the success of operations.

What’s the Difference Between a Surgical Assistant vs Technician?

Surgical assistants and surgical technicians work closely together, and both are vital members of the OR team. Despite this, there are essential differences between these two career paths:  

  • Surgical assistants provide hands-on assistance and “scrub in” to the surgery. They help the surgeon by closing wounds, holding incisions open, and handling various surgical instruments.  
  • Surgical technicians support the entire OR team before, during, and after surgery. They do not “scrub in” or provide hands-on during surgery but focus on setting up the OR room, maintaining a sterile environment, and organizing equipment.
  • Certification for surgical assistants and surgical techs are similar. The National Board of Surgical Technology & Surgical Assisting (NBTSA) certification is the gold standard for both professions. Check out our Surgical Assistant Certification Guide for more information.

What Does a Surgical Assistant Do?

Surgical assistants may care for patients of all ages during surgery and directly assist the surgeon with hands-on care. They are closely familiar with the surgeries they help with and are experts in surgical procedures and care.

The surgical assistant job description includes the following:

  • Anticipating the needs of the surgeon and the course of the operation. A skilled surgical assistant will often know what a surgeon needs before they even ask!
  • Operating room set-up and clean-up.
  • Ensuring required surgical tools and equipment are sterile, set up, and ready for use.
  • Using suction to keep the surgical area clear, clean, and easily visible to the surgeon.
  • Assisting the surgeon with cutting tissue, clamping blood vessels, and other procedural needs.
  • Monitoring the surgical area for bleeding and clotting.
  • Suturing, closing, and dressing the surgical incision or wounds.

What is a Surgical First Assistant?

Surgical assistants can also be called surgical first assistants or “first assists.” They are the closest person to the surgery, besides the actual surgeons themselves!

The roles and responsibilities of surgical assistants can vary between facilities, surgeries, and from surgeon to surgeon. Surgical assistants are highly-trained professionals who can perform a wide range of operating room functions.

How Do You Become a Surgical Assistant?

There are many paths you can take to become a surgical assistant. All of them start with a high school diploma. Here’s a closer look at each of them:

  • Obtain a degree or certificate in a health-related field. An associate's degree or bachelor’s degree is required for this profession.
  • Complete an accredited surgical assistant training program recognized by the National Surgical Assistant Association (NSAA). These programs are typically one to two years in length.    
  • Registered nurses who work in the ORs often choose to become first assistants in addition to operating registered nurses. This path is called a registered nurse first assistant (RNFA).
  • How long does it take to become a surgical assistant? The answer depends on the path you take to get there, and ranges from two to four years.

FAQs About Surgical Assistants

What skills does a Surgical Assistant need?

A surgical assistant has an expansive skillset! Their knowledge and technical skills play a huge role in surgical outcomes. Here are the skills that you will need:

  • An in-depth understanding of surgical procedures.
  • Awareness of surgical complications and emergencies.
  • Hands-on skill and technical dexterity.
  • Familiarity with surgical tools and technology.
  • Ability to communicate clearly and effectively in a fast-paced and often stressful environment.
  • A team-oriented approach to ensure surgical patients receive the highest quality care and outcomes.

Work Settings For a Surgical Assistant

Surgical assistants work in operating room environments. They are needed in hospital operating rooms and surgical centers. Surgical assistants are needed in all 50 states and in hospitals of all sizes.

Surgical assistants primarily work daytime hours. Call shifts, plus weekend and overnight shifts, may be needed depending on work setting. Large hospitals and trauma centers must have OR teams available 24/7 in case an emergent surgery is needed. Outpatient surgery centers provide more routine cases and standard working hours.

Common Cases a Surgical Assistant Encounters

Surgical assistants encounter a wide range of surgical cases and procedures. Here are some of the most common,

  • General surgery: Surgery on the stomach, esophagus, intestine, liver, and other abdominal organs.
  • Orthopedic surgery: Surgery on bones, ligaments, and tendons, including fracture repair and joint replacements.
  • Cardiothoracic surgery: Surgery on the heart and lungs. This includes bypass surgery, open-heart surgery operations, heart or lung transplants, and more.
  • Neurosurgery: Surgery on the brain and nerves.
  • Pediatric surgery: Surgical procedures of all kinds on infants and children from birth to eighteen.
  • Trauma surgery: Surgery for traumatic injuries, including motor-vehicle accidents, gunshot wounds, falls, accidents, and more.
  • Obstetric and gynecologic surgery: Cesarean sections and surgeries involving the ovaries, uterus, and other gynecologic conditions.

How To Advance Your Career as a Surgical Assistant?

Once you get started, you can further your surgical assistant career by advancing your education, specializing in a particular area, or growing into a leadership or management role. Here are a few options:

  • Become a lead surgical assistant or surgical assistant supervisor. You can also begin training and mentoring new surgical assistants.
  • Surgeries are complicated! Because of this, additional training in a specific area of surgery is often needed. Think about what interests you, and seek further experience and training in those roles.
  • Achieve an advanced degree. Surgical assistants who have master's degrees are often able to move into administration and management positions.

Education Requirements & Helpful Certifications for a Surgical Assistant

To become a surgical assistant, you must obtain an associate or bachelor’s degree in a health-related field. Once you have finished your degree, you will need to complete an accredited surgical assistant training program.

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