Certified First Assistant Careers: Job Description & Salary Info

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Certified first assistants earn a median salary of about $43,000. Is this worth the education and training requirements? Learn the truth about the career outlook for this profession and read job postings from real employers to decide if becoming a certified first assistant is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Certified First Assistant Career

Certified first assistants, also called certified surgical assistants, are support staff members that work in operating rooms. Following is a list of pros and cons that can help you decide whether or not this occupation is right for you.

Pros of Becoming a Certified First Assistant
Opportunity to help saves lives*
Vocational certificate is the minimum education required*
Growth in aging population likely to increase job demand*
Hospitals tend to hire more first assistants than registered nurses to save costs*

Cons of Becoming a Certified First Assistant
May be exposed to diseases*
May work past shift and be on call*
Usually on feet for long periods of time*
Low base salary (lowest 10% earned less than $30,780 for surgical technologists as of May 2014)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Essential Career Info

Job Description and Duties

Certified first assistants are classified as surgical technologists or operating room technicians, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). These professionals typically work in hospital operating rooms with other medical staff such as registered nurses, physicians and surgeons. However, you may also find employment at outpatient surgical centers and private doctors' offices. As a certified first assistant, your job duties may involve setting up surgical equipment and instruments for procedures, helping staff members get gowned for surgery, preparing patients for surgery by cleaning and sterilizing incisions sites, passing instruments to nurses and surgeons during operations and ensuring the operating room is stocked with sufficient supplies.

Salary and Job Outlook

According to the BLS, surgical technologists should see a 30% growth in employment from 2012-2022. Two reasons for this job growth are an increased demand for surgical procedures among the elderly population and improvements in medical technology. As of May 2014, the lowest-paid 10% of surgical technologists earned about $30,780, and the highest-paid 10% earned $62,170 or more. The median wage was $43,350.

General Requirements

Education

According to the BLS, you usually need to complete a surgical technology certificate or associate's degree program to become a first assistant. In most instances, you need to have a high school diploma or equivalent education to gain admission into an accredited program.

Certification

Although certification for this career field is voluntary, becoming certified can improve your job prospects. There are several organizations that offer certification for first assistants. Among them include the National Board of Surgical Technologists and Surgical Assistants (NBSTSA) and the National Surgical Assistant Association (NSAA).

The NBSTSA offers the Certified Surgical First Assistant designation (CSFA). Eligibility requirements for the CSFA exam include graduation from a surgical assistant program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP). You can obtain the Certified Surgical Assistant (CSA) credential from the NSAA by completing an approved surgical assistant certificate program. If you have experience in surgical assisting as a member of the military or medical professional such as physician assistant or registered nurse, you can also become eligible for the CSA exam.

Job Postings from Real Employers

Most job postings showed that certified first assistants usually need a high school education and formal training in surgical technology. Typically, you need to have at least one year of experience performing similar duties to gain employment. Below is a list of real job postings that can help you understand what employers were looking for during November and December of 2012.

  • A hospital in Hartford, CT, was looking for a certified surgical technician to work in a state-of-the-art operating room. The candidate would function as a first scrub assistant under the supervision of registered nurses (RNs). Job duties included lifting and positioning patients, preparing sterile supplies and transporting patients to operating rooms. The candidate must have had an operating room technician (ORT) certification, at least one year of experience, be a high school graduate and be a graduate of a surgical technologist program.
  • A medical center in Virginia was looking for a candidate with surgical assistant or first assistant certification. The candidate must also have had a high school diploma, CPR certification and at least three years' experience scrubbing cases in an operating room. The employer preferred a candidate with at least one year of experience as a surgical assistant. Job duties included providing equipment and surgical supplies during procedures, maintaining a sterile environment and participating in on-call assignments.
  • A Cincinnati, OH, healthcare company wanted to hire a senior surgical assistant with 4-5 years of related experience, including 2-3 years in surgical assisting. Other requirements included graduation from an approved technical or vocation program and certification as a first assistant or surgical assistant from the NBSTSA or NSAA. The candidate would work under the direction of attending surgeons during operations.
  • An Atlanta, GA, healthcare company was seeking an applicant to prepare patients for surgery, set-up equipment, clean operating rooms and pass instruments to surgeons during procedures. The employer was looking for someone who was a graduate of an accredited surgical technology program, had a high school diploma or equivalent education and certification from the NBSTSA.

How to Stand Out

You can stand out in this field by earning a bachelor's degree in surgical technology. You typically need an associate's degree in a closely related discipline to gain admission. You can also gain a competitive advantage by joining a surgical assistant state association. Several states offer membership benefits such as continuing education programs, legislative representation, newsletters and networking opportunities to those who join. The BLS also noted that first assistants who maintain their certification are likely to have the best job prospects. For the CFSA credential offered by the NBSTSA, you must earn a minimum of 75 continuing education units to renew your certification every four years. The NSAA requires that you recertify every two years and submit 50 continuing education points at least 30 days prior to renewal.

Other Career Fields

Physician Assistant

You can also work alongside surgeons in an operating room as a physician assistant. In this role, you will have more authority to perform procedures such as administering medications and vaccinations, closing-up incisions, examining patients and setting broken bones. To work in this field, you will be required to complete a post-baccalaureate physician assistant program. In most instances, a physician assistant program leads to a master's degree. According to the BLS, you need a license to practice in all states. The BLS also found that physician assistants were expected to have faster-than-average employment growth of 30% from 2010-2020. As of May 2011, the median wage earned by these professionals was about $89,000, according to the BLS.

Medical Assistant

If you would like to assist physicians and surgeons but don't want to work in an operating room, you may consider becoming a medical assistant. Some of your responsibilities would involve collecting patient history, helping with paperwork, assisting physicians with examinations, submitting blood samples to laboratories, scheduling patient appointments and taking their vital signs. Most medical assistants have a high school diploma and some complete formal postsecondary training, according to the BLS. Many of these professionals also receive training on the job from a senior-level medical staff. As of May 2011, the BLS found that medical assistants earned a median salary of about $29,000. In the decade of 2010-2020, these professionals were expected to have a 31% increase in employment, according to the BLS.

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Featured Schools

The George Washington University

  • MSHS Medical Laboratory Sciences
  • MSHS in Immunohematology and Biotechnology
  • MSHS in Molecular Diagnostic Sciences

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Virginia College

  • Associate: Surgical Technology

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Kaplan University

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Colorado Technical University

  • Doctor of Management - Health Care Management and Leadership
  • MS - Healthcare Management
  • BS - Business Administration - Health Care Management

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University of the Southwest

  • MBA Healthcare Administration

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Northcentral University

  • MS - Organizational Leadership: Health Care Administration

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American InterContinental University

  • Master of Healthcare Management
  • Master of Business Admin: Healthcare Admin
  • Bachelor of Business Admin: Healthcare Management
  • Bachelor of Healthcare Management - HSA Mgt.

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Regent University

  • Doctor of Strategic Leadership - Healthcare Leadership
  • Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership - Healthcare Management
  • Master of Business Administration - Healthcare Management

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