Surgical Technologists vs. Surgical Assistants

If you’re thinking of getting into the field of healthcare, few jobs are more interesting and rewarding than those that let you work hands-on with patients and in the operating room. For a career that doesn’t require a medical degree, surgical technology and surgical assisting are great options. But before you make this important decision for your future, learn more about each of these careers and the important differences between them.

Job Descriptions and Duties

The job duties of surgical assistants and techs are similar in that they both revolve around the operating room, patients needing surgery, and helping surgical teams do their jobs better. The surgical assistant does more hands-on work with the patient during surgery, while the technologist is more involved with preparing materials and equipment. Typical duties of a surgical technologist include:

  • Preparing operating rooms for surgery
  • Sterilizing equipment and surgical tools
  • Ensuring equipment in the operating room is set up and working properly
  • Getting patients ready for surgery
  • Inventorying surgical supplies
  • Passing instruments to the surgeon during an operation

Surgical assistants, also sometimes referred to as surgical first assistants, may perform many of the same duties as the surgical tech, depending on staffing in a hospital or surgery center. Other typical duties for surgical assistants include:

  • Positioning the patient for surgery
  • Draping the patient before surgery
  • Perform basic procedures on the patient under the surgeon’s direct instruction, including cutting tissue or suturing
  • Closing wounds
  • Applying dressings to surgical wounds
  • Inserting drainage tubes
  • Selecting and handing the appropriate instrument to the surgeon
  • Applying pressure or holding surgical sites open

Work Environment

The setting for both techs and assistants is similar. They are mostly hired to work in hospitals, although they may also work in ambulatory surgery centers or physicians’ offices in which procedures are performed. Both professionals do work that is physically demanding, and both are on their feet for much of their shifts. Most work in these fields is full time, but hours can vary and may include on-call hours for weekends or evenings and shifts that are longer than eight hours.

Training and Certification Requirements

Becoming a surgical technologist requires less training and education. To begin working as a surgical tech you will most likely need to complete a post-secondary education program. These are typically one- to two-year programs that prepare students to pass the exam for national certification. Most states do not require that surgical techs are certified but many employers do.

Likewise, surgical assistants do not have to be certified in most states, but many employers require it. Most post-secondary programs for surgical assisting confer certificates or two-year degrees and also prepare graduates to pass the examinations set for national certification.

Both surgical techs and assistants can become certified through the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting. Requirements to sit for the exams include completing an appropriate accredited program. Surgical assistants can also choose to become certified through the National Commission for the Certification of Surgical Assistants.

Salaries and Outlook

Healthcare careers are constantly growing, so the outlook for both surgical technologists and assistants is positive throughout the U.S. Allied healthcare careers like these have particularly strong growth. The salaries are strong too, especially for careers that don’t require lengthy, expensive college degree programs.

The 2017 median annual salary for a surgical technologist in the U.S. was $46,310, and those in the top 10 percent of the field earned over $67,000 per year. Salaries for surgical assistants can vary more, but they are often a little higher because of the additional responsibilities as compared to surgical techs.

Opportunities for Growth

Both surgical techs and surgical assistants have a lot of room for growth in their careers. Having a certificate or two-year degree in a healthcare field is a great stepping stone to earning a four-year degree in nursing or pre-medical studies. The experience working with physicians, nurses and patients also gives these professionals an advantage in getting admitted to degree programs. They may also advance in their careers without earning an additional degree. For instance, surgical techs often get on-the-job training to learn to work as surgical first assistants.

Whether you chose to pursue a career as a surgical technologist or a surgical assistant, you have chosen a field that is important to patient safety, interesting and rewarding, and lucrative with a good future.

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