What do you want to become?
Alternate Career Titles:
First Assistant, Non-Physician Surgical Assistant, Certified Surgical Assistant, CSA, Surgical Assistant-Certified, SA-C
Surgical Assistant Job Description: Surgical Assistants provide assistance to Surgeons before, during and after surgical procedures
Surgical Assistant Salary (Annual): $46,310
Surgical Assistant Salary Range: $32,470 to $67,000
How Long To Become a Surgical Assistant: 2 years
Surgical Assistant Requirements: Post-secondary Non-degree Award or Associate’s Degree in Surgical Assisting
Become a Surgical Assistant
A Surgical Assistant is responsible for assisting with surgical procedures by treating patient wounds, sponging, suturing, maintaining homeostasis and holding retractors. In some instances, these professionals may be asked to hold an incision open for better access. As part of an operating room team, Surgical Assistants (also referred to as “First Assistants”) will work alongside Physicians and Registered Nurses to ensure that patient incision sites are washed and disinfected.
Other responsibilities of these professionals include completing all necessary paperwork, making sure that the operating room is ready for use and monitoring the use of tools during surgeries. Ultimately, their purpose is to perform the most basic surgical duties, allowing the Surgeon to remain hyper-focused on the most technical aspects of a procedure.
“To me, being a Surgical Assistant has been the most rewarding and yet challenging part of my life,” Hope Rowland, a Surgical Assistant practicing in Wisconsin, said. “I love being a part of a team that makes a difference in patients’ lives. Knowing that I am the Surgeon’s ‘right hand’ gives me a great feeling of accomplishment and pride.”
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Education & Training
To become a Surgical Assistant learners must obtain a post-secondary non-degree award or earn an Associate’s Degree. Learners can obtain a degree through a community college, vocational schools or sometimes through some hospitals and universities. While the program length may vary depending on the organization, they typically take two years to complete. The learning process will include instruction on anatomy, biology, physiology, pharmacology, medical terminology, etc.
Students of these programs receive both classroom and clinical training on patient safety, sterilization techniques, infection prevention and control, as well as how to set up specialized equipment. Upon completion of school and gaining employment, most Surgical Assistants will be further required to undergo organization-specific on-site training.
“I began my career as a Surgical Technologist, but then I began assisting with more responsibilities,” Rowland recalled. “That was a huge transition, but by having such direct access to the Surgeons I was able to better learn the proper ways to assist Surgeons.”
Rowland added that she is currently enrolled in a 10-month online course to become a Certified Surgical First Assistant (CSFA-ERC). Although her employer does not require this certification, she is pursuing the continued education to fulfill a personal goal.
To advance in a healthcare career as a Surgical Assistant, professionals may choose to pursue continued education. This can lead them to other healthcare occupations, like that of a Registered Nurse. CSAs can also work toward more advanced certifications, training or licenses, or try to seek out a more managerial role within their current place of employment.
“Becoming certified does expand career opportunities, but experience and expertise in certain specialties will make your resume more appealing in the career market,” Rowland explained. “I started at the bottom and worked my way up to becoming one of the top Surgical Assistants. However, I’ve also known colleagues that have gone on to become sales representatives for certain products due to their extensive knowledge.”
Experience & Skills
To succeed in the role of Certified Surgical Assistant, professionals must be experienced in sterilization methods and techniques, and in patient safety protocols. They should also be able to remain calm and collected throughout stressful surgeries and other high-pressure circumstances. This career may require physical stamina due to the extended periods of time surgical professionals are required to stand during an operation.
“As a Surgical Assistant, professionals must have solid knowledge of anatomy, especially that of nerves and vessels,” Rowland said. “Ultimately, they stand across from the Surgeons and assist them. We are there in place of another surgeon and we close incisions”
“Surgical Assistants should be calm in nature, especially during emergent situations,” Rowland emphasized. “They should also have strong communication skills, be able to learn and take constructive criticism and deal with the wide range of personalities that can exist in careers in healthcare.”
To be an effective Surgical Assistant, individuals should be organized and detail-oriented to ensure that no errors are made during surgical procedures. They should also be dexterous, allowing them to work with their hands quickly, to effectively deliver and supply the appropriate sharp tools and equipment as needed. Surgical Assistants should also possess the utmost integrity in performing all assigned responsibilities ethically and honestly.
As a Surgical Assistant, most professionals secure full-time employment. Yet, they may be required to be placed on-call or work evenings, nights, weekends and holidays. Depending on the employer, Surgical Assistants may be assigned regularly-set hours or work varied shifts throughout their workweek.
“In this healthcare career, days can be long depending on the specialty you are working in,” Rowland said. “You have to be able to stand long hours in one position, and most employers do require taking call.”
Rowland further explained that, in her experience, Surgical Assistants need to be available at all hours, even in the middle of the night for emergencies. They also need to be prepared, and on their “A game”, to assist in procedures that can take over 12 hours to complete.
Alternatively, Operating Room Technicians strictly work in “OR” rooms and regularly experience very high-stress scenarios. Their work is physically demanding, and requires extended periods of time standing. Depending on a procedure, these professionals may help move patients, lift trays or carry / transport medical supplies. Exposure to diseases and illnesses can be an unfortunate stipulation of careers in surgery, possibly impacting Surgical Technologists as well.
Now is a great time to begin working toward a career as a Surgical Assistant! Over the next decade this career in healthcare is projected to grow 12 percent, which is a rate much faster than the average for all occupations. This growth can largely be attributed to technological and health service advances allowing more procedures to be performed in a given day. Also, the aging baby-boomer generation now requires greater health treatments, further increasing the need for Surgical Assistant services.
Currently, the top employing facilities of Surgical Assistants are hospitals, Family Physician offices, outpatient care centers, ambulatory services and dental offices. Worthy of note, the states employing the greatest number of Surgical Assistants are Texas, Florida and Michigan. California and New York don’t use Surgical Assistants in the first assist role. Furthermore, California law requires two Surgeons or a Surgeon and a Physician Assistant (or Registered Nurses First Assistants) oversee each procedure.
“Most Surgical Assistants start out as Surgical Technologists and work their way up the ‘ladder,’” Rowland suggested. “As Surgical Assistants are slowly taking the place of assisting Physicians during basic surgeries, CSAs with experience and strong skill certifications will have a very good future.”
The median annual wage for Surgical Assistants is $46,310. While the lowest 10 percent earn less than $32,470, the highest earning 10 percent make over $67,000 annually. The highest paying employers of Surgical Assistants are outpatient care centers, the offices of Physicians, hospitals and dental offices. Meanwhile, the highest paying states for this occupation are California, Alaska, Nevada, the District of Columbia and Hawaii.
“There is the potential to make a great salary as a Surgical Assistant,” Rowland noted. “Taking on-call shifts and working overtime are standard in most hospital settings. How much a Surgical Assistant works will determine their income.”
Unions, Groups, Social Media, and Associations
The National Surgical Assistant Association (NSAA) is an organization dedicated to to promoting excellence, education, training and professional certification within the surgical assisting field. The group also seeks to establish standards of professionalism and proficiency for non-Physician Surgical Assistants.
The Association of Surgical Assistants (ASA) represents a broad coalition of surgical assistant practitioners, who share several common goals, including optimizing surgical patient care, promoting the recognition of all surgical assistant codes, advancing legislative strategies and providing relevant continuing education experiences.
The American Board of Surgical Assistants (ABSA) is a national credentialing organization, for Surgical Assistants. The ABSA administers a national and international certification examination, and covers all surgical disciplines and all areas of preoperative medicine.
The National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA) is a certifying agency for surgical technologists. NBSTSA is solely responsible for all decisions regarding certification; from determining eligibility to maintaining, denying, granting and renewing the designation.
- Become a Surgical Technologist and gain experience
- Find employment as a Surgical Tech for 3 to 5 years
- Join professional networks
- Become a Certified Surgical Assistant
- Apply for positions
All statistics are provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Meet the professional: Hope Rowland
Practice: Luke’s Medical Center
Location: Milwaukee, WI
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“The biggest suggestion I would give to someone wanting to be a Surgical Assistant would be to be ready for a mentally and physically demanding career. If you’re dedicated, the career can also be extremely rewarding.”
What’s the number one mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“The number one mistake people make when entering this career is that the work is easy. When you’re not in a position as a Surgical Assistant, you have no idea how challenging the work can actually be.
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“‘How stressful can the career be?’ You have a patient’s life in your hands, and one wrong move could permanently harm that patient.”
Why did you choose to become a Surgical Assistant?
“I observed Surgical Assistants when I was a Surgical Technician and I thought the career was fascinating. Once I started working as a Surgical Assistant, I knew the career was for me. I love every minute of the work.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
Credentialing organizations: The American Board of Surgical Assistants