Careers Paths

How to Work as Surgical Assistants: Career Information and Salary

A surgical assistant (SA) is a key member of the medical team and has a tough job. Before becoming certified, SAs must satisfy extra-legal standards in addition to a few educational prerequisites002E

In this post, you’ll discover the duties of a surgical assistant, the salary they may earn, how you can become a surgical assistant, and get answers to frequently asked questions about the industry.

What is the role of a surgical assistant?

An individual in the medical field who operates under a surgeon’s direction before, during, and following various sorts of procedures is known as a surgical assistant. The role of a surgical assistant is critical to ensuring the smooth and efficient execution of surgical procedures. Surgical assistants work alongside surgeons and other healthcare professionals in the operating room, providing support and expertise throughout the surgical process. Here are the key responsibilities and duties of a surgical assistant:

  • Preoperative Preparation: Before a surgical procedure, surgical assistants help prepare the operating room by ensuring that all necessary equipment, instruments, and supplies are properly sterilized and arranged. They also ensure that the patient is positioned correctly and safely on the operating table.
  • Assisting During Surgery: During the surgical procedure, surgical assistants work closely with the surgeon. They hand instruments and supplies to the surgeon as needed, maintain a clear view of the surgical site by managing retractors and suction devices, and provide hemostasis (control of bleeding) using techniques such as clamping and suturing.
  • Surgical Instrumentation: Surgical assistants are responsible for selecting and passing appropriate surgical instruments to the surgeon during the procedure. They need to have a thorough understanding of various surgical instruments and their uses.
  • Suturing and Wound Closure: Surgical assistants may assist with suturing incisions, wounds, and tissues under the direction of the surgeon. They help ensure proper wound closure and minimize the risk of infection.
  • Hemostasis: Surgical assistants assist in controlling bleeding by applying hemostatic techniques, clamping blood vessels, and using other methods to ensure a bloodless surgical field.
  • Anesthesia Support: Surgical assistants collaborate with the anesthesia team to monitor the patient’s vital signs, administer medications, and ensure the patient’s comfort and safety throughout the procedure.
  • Specimen Handling: During procedures involving tissue removal or biopsies, surgical assistants manage and handle specimens for laboratory analysis.
  • Patient Advocacy: Surgical assistants help advocate for patient safety by ensuring proper positioning, padding, and restraints to prevent complications during surgery.
  • Documentation and Record-Keeping: Surgical assistants document key details of the surgical procedure, including the instruments used, interventions performed, and any complications or unexpected findings.
  • Postoperative Care: After the surgery is complete, surgical assistants assist in transferring the patient to the recovery area, ensuring that all instruments and supplies are accounted for, and assisting with wound dressing and initial patient care.
  • Emergency Situations: In emergency situations, surgical assistants remain prepared to assist with critical procedures and support the surgical team in maintaining patient stability.
  • Continuing Education: Surgical assistants are committed to staying updated with advances in surgical techniques, technology, and best practices through ongoing education and training.

Other roles include:

  • Verifying the procedure with the surgeon
  • The choice of reference X-rays
  • Educating, reassuring, and counseling the patient before surgery
  • Ensuring that the right surgical equipment is present in the operating room and sanitizing the equipment before a surgery
  • Positioning and transferring patients before operations and into the operating room
  • Ensuring the space is kept sterile
  • Providing the surgeon with the necessary tools and equipment as needed
  • Running machinery during operations
  • Putting catheters in
  • Positioning tourniquets
  • Marking, sterilizing, opening, and shutting the patient’s surgical sites
  • Obtaining grafts for the patient.
  • Observing and documenting a patient’s vital signs
  • Executing life-saving techniques in an emergency
  • Bandaging the patient as soon as the operation is over
  • Transferring patients to healing areas or intensive care units once the procedures are finished

Surgical assistants are essential in patient care. Surgical assistants work to reduce the dangers to patients with ailments such as nerve injury and poor circulation. Overall, the role of a surgical assistant is multifaceted and demands a high level of technical skill, teamwork, and attention to detail. Surgical assistants contribute significantly to patient care and safety throughout the surgical journey, from preoperative preparation to postoperative recovery.

Average surgical assistant pay and salary outlook

The salary of a surgical assistant can vary based on factors such as location, experience, education, certifications, and the specific healthcare facility. In the United States, for example, the average salary for surgical assistants is influenced by regional differences, demand for healthcare services, and the cost of living. As of my last knowledge update in September 2021, here’s a general salary outlook for surgical assistants:

  • Average Salary Range: The average annual salary for surgical assistants in the United States typically falls within the range of $70,000 to $90,000. This figure can vary depending on the factors mentioned above.
  • Experience: Like many professions, experience plays a significant role in salary. Surgical assistants with several years of experience can often command higher salaries, especially if they have specialized in a specific surgical field.
  • Certification: Having a certification as a Certified Surgical First Assistant (CSFA) or Certified Surgical Assistant (CSA) from recognized organizations can positively impact salary potential. Certified surgical assistants tend to earn higher salaries than those without certification.
  • Location: Salaries can significantly differ by state and city. Metropolitan areas or regions with a higher cost of living might offer higher salaries to compensate for the increased expenses.
  • Healthcare Setting: Surgical assistants can work in various healthcare settings, including hospitals, outpatient clinics, surgical centers, and academic institutions. The type of facility can influence salary levels.
  • Additional Skills and Specializations: Surgical assistants with additional skill specialization in specific surgical procedures may be eligible for higher salaries. Specializing in areas such as neurosurgery, cardiovascular surgery, or orthopedic surgery can be financially rewarding.
  • Shifts and On-Call: Certain shifts, such as evening, night, or weekend shifts, as well as being on-call, might offer additional compensation.
  • Benefits: Benefits such as health insurance, retirement plans, paid time off, and educational opportunities can contribute to the overall compensation package.

It’s important to note that salary information can change over time, and the figures provided here are based on information available up until September 2021. For the most current and accurate salary data, I recommend consulting reputable sources such as government labor departments, industry associations, and healthcare job websites. Additionally, factors beyond salary, such as job satisfaction, opportunities for advancement, and the fulfillment of helping patients, are also important considerations in pursuing a career as a surgical assistant.

How to Get a Job as a Surgical Assistant

  • Decide on a potential professional path.
  • Satisfy certain educational criteria.
  • Learn more about the surgical field.
  • Enroll in a course in surgical assisting.
  • Acquire a certification.

On your way to becoming a surgical assistant, you must enroll in a surgical assisting program, but there are a number of decisions you must first make. Your career trajectory should resemble this:

1. Decide on a potential career path

Starting out as surgical technicians, registered nurses, or physician assistants might lead to becoming surgical assistants. You’ll need to decide on any of these careers, sign up for the right program, and earn a degree.

2. Fulfill specified educational prerequisites

As a prerequisite, you must have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in a medically relevant discipline. A 3.0 grade point average (GPA) will probably be needed as a minimum.

3. Develop your surgical experience

You’ll need to work in an operating room once you’ve earned your degree and have secured employment. You may be required to possess a minimum of three years of operating room experience, based on the surgical assisting school you apply to. As an alternative, you can be eligible to participate in a surgical assisting program if you’ve got prior military medical expertise.

4. Enroll in a program for surgical assistants.

Among other relevant topics, you will study pharmacology, anesthesia, and microbiology during your training. You can earn a certificate after finishing a surgical assisting program in 10 to 22 months, but much more rigorous prerequisites must be met. You also need to pass a drug test, obtain health insurance, complete the required vaccines, and pass a cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) certification exam.

5. Acquire a certificate

Surgical assistants are required to be certified. Any one of the following three organizations can certify you:

For the NSAA or ABSA, you must renew your certification every two years. After January 1, 2020, surgical assistants who obtained their certification from the NBSTSA must recertify every two years.

What skills does a person need to work as a surgical assistant?

Becoming a surgical assistant requires a combination of technical skills, medical knowledge, and interpersonal abilities. Surgical assistants play a crucial role in the operating room by assisting surgeons during procedures. Here are some key skills needed to become a surgical assistant:

  • Medical Knowledge: Surgical assistants need a solid understanding of anatomy, physiology, and medical terminology. They should be familiar with surgical procedures, instruments, and techniques.
  • Technical Proficiency: Proficiency in handling surgical instruments, sutures, and equipment is essential. Surgical assistants must be skilled in maintaining a sterile environment and following infection control protocols.
  • Dexterity and Hand-Eye Coordination: Surgical procedures require precision and steady hands. Surgical assistants should have excellent hand-eye coordination and the ability to perform delicate tasks accurately.
  • Attention to Detail: Surgical assistants must pay meticulous attention to detail to ensure patient safety and procedural accuracy. They need to anticipate the surgeon’s needs and respond promptly.
  • Problem-Solving Skills: Quick thinking and the ability to make decisions under pressure are vital. Surgical assistants may need to troubleshoot unexpected situations during procedures.
  • Communication Skills: Effective communication is crucial in the operating room. Surgical assistants must communicate clearly and efficiently with the surgical team, including the surgeon, nurses, and anesthesiologist.
  • Teamwork and Collaboration: Surgical assistants work closely with the surgical team to ensure smooth procedures. They should be cooperative, adaptable, and able to work harmoniously in a fast-paced environment.
  • Ethical and Professional Conduct: Surgical assistants need to adhere to ethical standards and maintain patient confidentiality. Professionalism, empathy, and compassion are important traits when dealing with patients and their families.
  • Time Management: Operating room schedules can be tight, and surgical assistants need to manage their time effectively to assist with multiple procedures in a day.
  • Sterilization and Infection Control: Knowledge of proper sterilization techniques and infection control protocols is crucial to prevent the spread of infections and ensure patient safety.
  • Physical Stamina: Surgical procedures can be physically demanding, requiring the ability to stand for extended periods and maintain focus throughout lengthy surgeries.
  • Continuous Learning: The medical field is constantly evolving. Surgical assistants should be open to ongoing learning and staying updated with the latest surgical techniques, equipment, and best practices.

Becoming a surgical assistant typically requires formal education, such as completing a surgical assisting program, and obtaining certification. Additionally, practical training and hands-on experience through internships or clinical rotations are essential to develop and hone these skills in a real-world surgical setting.

What kind of setting does a surgical assistant work in?

Surgical assistants work in a variety of healthcare settings where surgical procedures take place. Their role is to assist surgeons during surgeries and ensure that the operating room functions smoothly. Here are some common settings where surgical assistants work:

  • Hospitals: Hospitals are the most common setting for surgical assistants. They work in various surgical departments, such as general surgery, orthopedics, neurosurgery, cardiovascular surgery, and more. Surgical assistants collaborate closely with surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, and other healthcare professionals.
  • Outpatient Surgery Centers: These specialized centers focus on performing same-day surgical procedures that do not require overnight hospital stays. Surgical assistants in outpatient centers help with a wide range of surgeries, providing efficient care for patients.
  • Specialty Clinics: Some medical specialties, such as plastic surgery, dermatology, and ophthalmology, require surgical assistants to assist with specific procedures related to those specialties.
  • Trauma Centers: Surgical assistants in trauma centers are often involved in high-intensity cases where patients have suffered severe injuries. They work alongside trauma surgeons to provide immediate and life-saving surgical interventions.
  • Academic and Teaching Hospitals: In teaching hospitals, surgical assistants may play a role in training medical students, residents, and fellows in surgical techniques and procedures.
  • Private Practice: Surgical assistants may work directly with surgeons in private practice settings. They assist with a range of surgical procedures and contribute to the overall efficiency of the practice.
  • Research Institutions: Some surgical assistants work in research institutions or medical laboratories, where they assist with experimental surgeries or provide support for surgical studies.
  • Military Healthcare Facilities: In military settings, surgical assistants play a critical role in providing surgical care to service members and their families.
  • Traveling Surgical Teams: Some surgical assistants work as part of traveling surgical teams that provide specialized surgical services to different healthcare facilities on a temporary basis.
  • Global Health Organizations: Surgical assistants may also work with international organizations, providing surgical care and expertise in underserved regions around the world.
  • Crisis Response and Disaster Relief: In emergency situations, such as natural disasters or public health crises, surgical assistants may be deployed to provide surgical care and support.

Surgical assistants may also have the opportunity to specialize in certain types of surgeries or procedures, which can influence the specific settings where they work. Regardless of the setting, surgical assistants play a vital role in ensuring safe and successful surgical outcomes for patients.


In conclusion, embarking on the journey to become a surgical assistant is a path marked by dedication, education, and a passion for healthcare. Aspiring surgical assistants should focus on completing a recognized surgical assisting program, gaining valuable hands-on experience through clinical rotations, and obtaining relevant certifications. By developing a strong foundation in medical knowledge, technical skills, and interpersonal abilities, individuals can position themselves to excel in the dynamic and essential role of supporting surgeons and enhancing patient care in the operating room.

The pursuit of becoming a surgical assistant requires perseverance and commitment, but the rewards of contributing to successful surgical outcomes and making a meaningful impact on patients’ lives make it a fulfilling and rewarding career choice.

Frequently Asked Questions About Surgical Assistants

  • How much time is required to become a surgical assistant?
    • The training and education required to become a surgeon assistant may take a minimum of five or six years to accomplish.
    • The length of a bachelor’s degree program can range from three to four years, compared to an associate degree program’s approximate two-year length.
    • You must have a minimum of three years of operating room experience if you just acquire an associate degree.
    • A curriculum to become a surgical assistant lasts one to two years.
  • Which professions have a close connection to surgical assistants?

The following are some relevant job routes in this area:

  • Surgeon
    • Surgical assistant
    • Licensed nurse
    • Medical assistant
    • Dentist’s assistant
    • Assistant in medicine
  • Are the NSAA, ABSA, and NBSTSA certifications required for surgical assistants?

Only one organization’s certification is required at a time for surgical assistants. All of these organizations, nevertheless, provide various credentials:

The laws in your state may influence your decision on the credential you pursue.

  • Does the surgical assistant profession have legal recognition in my state?

Despite the fact that surgical assistants are recognized in the majority of states, they are not permitted to work in New York and New Jersey. There aren’t many chances for SAs in California.

  • What other difficulties can I experience in my role as a surgical assistant?

You will need to locate an insurance provider that will insure you in addition to adhering to the stringent requirements for becoming a SA. You must have liability insurance as a medical professional, but not all insurance providers accept SAs.

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