How to become a surgical assistant

If you want to work in operating rooms, your dream job may be closer than you think with a career as a surgical assistant. Learn everything to know about this medical career path. 

Surgical assistants work closely with surgeons and patients before, during, and after surgeries. It’s often an intense but rewarding job that allows you to positively impact other people’s lives daily.

What does a surgical assistant do?

Surgery would not be possible without the expertise of surgical assistants. They prepare for surgery by prepping the operating room and any necessary equipment and instruments. Then, during surgery, they assist surgeons as needed. After surgery, they may put away equipment and tools and transfer patients out of the operating room.

Other everyday responsibilities for this role include:

  • Going over the procedure with the patient before surgery
  • Inserting and removing IV tubes
  • Marking and sterilizing surgical sites for the surgeon
  • Recording patients’ vital signs
Surgeon leading child down hallway

Surgical Assistant specializations

For those interested in working closely with surgeons, consider pursuing a career as a surgical first assistant. This career requires some previous experience as an EMT, operating room scrub, or surgical technologist.

Because different surgeries require different knowledge and skills, surgical first assistants and surgical technologists often focus on specific specializations.

  • Neurosurgery: Neurosurgery is surgery on the nervous system, including the brain and spinal cord.
  • Cardiac surgery: Cardiac surgery is otherwise known as heart surgery. There are several types of heart surgery, including heart transplants and aortic valve surgery.
  • Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery: This specialization includes cleft lip surgeries and treatment of facial and jaw injuries.
  • Plastic surgery: Plastic surgery and reconstructive surgery may seem frivolous to some, but they can have life-changing impacts on people of all ages.
  • Urology: This specialty covers all surgeries involving the kidneys, bladder, and reproductive organs.

How to become a Surgical Assistant

Becoming a certified surgical assistant starts with the proper schooling and experience. Whether you are already working in the medical field or switching to a different career, there is a clear-cut path to follow to become a surgical assistant.

  1. Earn an associate or bachelor’s degree in an allied health field
  2. Gain operating room experience
  3. Complete a surgical assistant program
  4. Earn your surgical assistant certification

Earn an Associate or Bachelor’s Degree

To be a surgical technologist, you will need at least an associate degree in surgical technology or another allied health field. This degree typically takes two years to earn.

If you are wondering how to become a surgical first assistant, you may want to consider a bachelor’s degree in a medical field such as nursing. A bachelor’s degree in surgical technology or a related field typically takes four years. A nursing degree will also help you with the next step: gaining experience working in a surgical setting.

Gain Operating Room experience

Many surgical assistant jobs require you to have previous experience working in an operating room. The average program requires three to five years of experience.  

This work could include working as a nursing assistant, an EMT, or a military medic. You may even use some types of military experience to waive the degree requirements of certain programs. Volunteering at hospitals can also count toward the experience required to get into a surgical assistant program.

Complete a Surgical Assistant program

Surgical assistant programs usually last between 12 and 24 months. Surgical assisting is an advanced medical degree which is why a previous degree and a good amount of experience are required before you can even begin this post-secondary program.

Other requirements to enroll in surgical assistant schooling often include:

  • CPR and or BLS (Basic Life Support) certifications
  • Physical examination
  • Up-to-date immunization records
  • Computer proficiency

Earn your surgical assistant certification

Three organizations offer the examination to become certified as a surgical first assistant. Once you meet all the prerequisites, you can sign up to take the certification exam with one of the organizations.

  • NBSTSA: The National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting offers two surgical assistant certifications. They are a certification of surgical technologists (CST) and a certification of surgical first assistants (CSFA).
  • ABSA: The American Board of Surgical Assistants provides only one examination and certification in surgical assisting (CSA), which aligns with the CSFA certification but not the CST one.
  • NSAA: The National Surgical Assistants Association also offers one exam and CSA certification through the National Commission for the Certification of Surgical Assistants (NCCSA).

You will need to pay a fee with the cost depending on the type of educational program you completed and when you completed it. Also, remember that no matter which organization you choose, you will need to recertify every two years.

Is being a surgical assistant a good path?

If the surgical assistant job description sounds appealing, you may wonder whether this job will be in-demand when you get there. But rest assured, according to the BLS’s ten-year job outlook, the need for surgical assistants will remain steady over the next decade.

  • Estimate of jobs available: 109,700
  • Rate of projected job growth: 9% (as fast as average)
  • New jobs added in the next ten years: 9,500 per year
  • Fastest-growing states for jobs: South Dakota, Kentucky, and Louisiana

Surgical assistants are vital members of any surgical team, just like our team at Children’s MN

Essential Skills and Experience for Surgical Assistants

Like any job in the medical field, most of the post-secondary courses required are science-focused. Standard courses for surgical assistant schooling include:

  • Microbiology
  • Human anatomy
  • Physiology
  • Chemistry
  • Pharmacology
  • Anesthesia

In addition to technical knowledge from these courses, several soft skills will help potential surgical assistants succeed in this career.

  • Communication: These assistants work closely with surgeons, hospital staff, and patients, so clear, compassionate communication is critical.
  • Focus: Operating rooms are high-stakes environments. The ability to focus solely on the task at hand, and strong attention to detail, are necessary to do this job.
  • Calm: Surgery can often be stressful for patients and surgical teams. Operating room assistants must be able to remain calm under all circumstances. Calmness is also essential to being able to maintain focus.

Children’s MN surgery center provides gentle, kid-focused care that starts with the right people.

Explore surgery career paths with Children’s Minnesota

Whether pursuing an entry-level surgical technologist position or a higher-paying surgical first assistant position, your career outlook is bright! Surgical assistant jobs will continue to be in demand in the coming decade, making this path a smart career move.

Children’s Minnesota is a top children’s hospital for pediatric surgeries. We put the well-being of children first in everything we do. Learn more about our approach from our website or attend one of our hiring events to discuss how you can join the Children’s MN family. We offer competitive salary and benefits packages.

Looking for other ways to help children? 

Consider a job as a social worker at Children’s MN.

Liz Burwell