Surgical Assistant Careers: Job Description & Salary Information

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A surgical assistant's median annual salary is around $83,721. Is it worth the education requirements? See real job descriptions and get the truth about career prospects to find out if becoming a surgical assistant is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of Becoming a Surgical Assistant

Surgical assistants provide an extra pair of hands to surgeons during operations. You should consider what to expect in order to decide if becoming a surgical assistant is the right career for you.

Pros of Becoming a Surgical Assistant
Good salary (more than $83,000 before 2015)*
College degree preferred, but not required**
Can work in any geographic location***
High job-growth field (30% from 2012-2022)***

Cons of Becoming a Surgical Assistant
Requires lots of standing***
Exposure to blood, other body fluids and infectious diseases***
May work nights, weekends, holidays***
Few CAAHEP accredited training programs (only six in April 2012)****

Sources: *Salary.com, **American Medical Association, ***U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, ****Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs

Career Information

Job Description and Duties

Surgical assistants, often called surgical first assistants, assist surgeons during operations, clamping vessels, cutting tissue and closing wounds, among other duties. The surgical assistant also has pre- and post-operative duties, such as determining what equipment will be needed, inserting and removing Foley bladder catheters and helping lift and position the patient.

Surgical assistants aid with almost every type of surgical procedure. Most work in hospitals, but some have jobs with dentists and physicians who perform outpatient surgical procedures in their offices. Others work at ambulatory surgery centers. Transplant doctors who have their own surgical teams may employ surgical assistants, as well.

Career Outlook and Salary Information

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expected employment of all types of surgical technologists, including assistants, to grow by 30% from 2012-2022, greater than the average for all occupations. This is due to an aging population that will require an increased number of surgeries, the BLS noted.

The median annual salary for a surgical first assistant was $83,721 prior to 2015, Salary.com reported. Half of the people in the profession made between $74,673 and $92,547, according to Salary.com.

What Are the Requirements?

Surgical assistants are registered nurses, physician assistants or other allied health professionals who have additional training in operating room procedures. They can also be medical doctors or doctors of osteopathy. You may not need a college degree. Several combinations of education, certification and experience qualify you to enroll in a CAAHEP-approved training program for surgical assisting. These programs, taught at nursing schools and community colleges, take about 10-22 months. You can also train through programs accredited by the National Surgical Assistant Association (NSAA). Course topics include surgical pharmacology, surgical anatomy, medical ethics and anesthesia. You will also get clinical training in a surgical setting.

Useful Skills

Surgical assistants must have a sound college background in the sciences, so choose courses such as pharmacology and microbiology. You'll need to be computer literate and have a thorough knowledge of medical terminology. You will also have to prove certification in cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

What Employers Are Seeking

Training and professional certification were the two main qualifications employers listed in job postings for surgical assistants. All required certification in basic life support. Below are some examples of jobs postings open during March 2012:

  • A hospital in Michigan needed a surgical assistant who was a Certified Surgical Assistant or Certified Surgical Technician/First Assistant or could obtain certification within a year. The hospital also wanted someone with at least three years perioperative experience.
  • In Tennessee, a hospital was looking for a certified surgical assistant to help with pre-and perioperative work as well as assist the surgeon in the operating room. At least a year of assisting experience was required. This was a religious-affiliated hospital, and the ad said the candidate must be willing to adhere to a list of core values.
  • Another hospital in Tennessee needed a certified First Assistant who could also act as an operating room technologist. The ad specified that the candidate have completed college courses in anatomy, microbiology and physiology.
  • In Ohio, a hospital was looking for a graduate of an accredited surgical assistant program with at least a year of experience. There were several work schedules available, including on-call.

How to Stand Out

You can advance in your career by obtaining additional training in a specialized field of surgery such as heart surgery or pediatric surgery. Outstanding surgical assistants also keep their credentials current and obtain new knowledge by attending national conferences and seminars sponsored by professional associations as well as completing continuing education courses.

Obtain Certification

Job postings show that most employers require certification from one of the several professional credentialing boards. The National Board for Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA) offers the Certified Surgical Technologist /Certified First Assistant (CST/CFA) credential to students who graduated from CAAHEP-approved programs. NSAA offers a Certified Surgical Assistant (CSA) credential. The American Board of Surgical Assistants (ABSA) offers the SA-C certification to surgical assistants who meet its training and experience qualifications. All of these certifications require passing an exam and meeting continuing education requirements to maintain certification.

Other Career Paths

Surgical Technologist

If you want to work in the operating room, but don't think you'd be comfortable actually cutting or suturing patients, perhaps a career as a surgical technologist would be suitable. Surgical technologists, called scrubs or operating room technicians, help set up instruments and equipment, then pass them to the surgeon or surgical assistant. They may prep patients for surgery and position them on the operating table.

A surgical technologist must complete a 9- to 24-month training program. Most employers want someone certified by one of the national associations. The BLS said the salary for surgical technologist was $41,000 in May 2011.

Circulating Nurse

Circulating nurses work outside the sterile field during surgery. They question the patient before the procedure and help prepare the patient by shaving or disinfecting the area. Circulating nurses obtain and open packages of equipment and supplies, leaving the contents untouched for the sterile members of the team to remove. They also keep a written record of the procedure.

A circulating nurse is a registered nurse with additional training in surgical nursing. The BLS predicted that employment of all types of nurses would grow by 26% from 2010-2020, but said job growth in hospitals would be slower. However, the BLS noted that rapid growth was expected in other types of facilities, including outpatient surgery centers. According to the BLS, the median salary for registered nurses was about $66,000 in May 2011.

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Featured Schools

George Mason University

  • Master of Health Administration in Health Systems Management
  • Master of Science in Health Informatics

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Keiser University

  • RN to BSN
  • Associate of Sciences - Medical Assistant

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University of Delaware

  • Master of Business Administration - Healthcare Concentration

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Grand Canyon University

  • Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)
  • M.S. in Nursing: Nursing Education
  • BS in Nursing (Registered Nurse - R.N. to BSN)

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Utica College

  • MBA - Health Care Management
  • Masters in Health Care Administration
  • RN to Bachelor of Science

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The University of Scranton

  • MBA - Healthcare Management
  • Master of Health Administration
  • Executive Certificate in Health Administration

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Herzing University

  • MSN - Family Nurse Practitioner
  • Associate of Science - Medical Assisting Services
  • Diploma: Medical Assisting

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Colorado Technical University

  • Doctor - Nursing Practice
  • MS - Nursing - Nursing Administration
  • BS - Nursing (RN to BSN completion)

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