Surgical assistants, sometimes called surgical technologists or surgical technicians, assist with surgical procedures by preparing the operating room, arranging equipment and assisting with procedures like draping the patient or inserting a catheter. The Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs says that surgical assistants must earn a bachelor's degree in a health field like nursing or physician assisting before they can be admitted to a surgical assisting program, which can last from 10 to 22 months.
Most surgical assistants work in hospitals, though some may work in surgical outpatient centers. A surgical assistant's daily duties may include confirming procedures with the surgeon, determining what equipment is needed for the procedure and arranging it, assisting with moving the patient, selecting and applying wound dressings and draping the patient, according to the CAAHEP. Assistants also perform actual medical duties, such as clamping tissues, retracting tissues or organs for visualization, maintaining homeostasis in the patient, inserting drainage tubes, closing wounds, and assisting with resuscitation. Daily duties depend upon the operations being performed.
Current CAAHEP-accredited programs for surgical assistants last between 10 and 22 months. They are specialization programs, not degree-granting programs. Those interested in becoming surgical assistants should first complete a bachelor's degree in a science or a health-related field. Those who do not complete the bachelor's degree may be able to enter the program by first completing an associate degree in an allied health field and have three years of operating room or assisting experience within the last five years. Surgical assistant programs include courses in biology, chemistry, and anatomy and physiology. Specific surgical assisting training also covers tissue handling, suturing techniques and the use of instruments.
Surgical assistants who become certified may be able to expand their career opportunities or increase their earnings potential. The Liaison Council on Certification for the Surgical Technologist offers the Certified Surgical Technologist and Certified First Assistant credential, and the National Surgical Assistant Association offers a Certified Surgical Assistant credential. Candidates must graduate from an accredited training program before they become eligible to take the exam to become certified.
Jobs for surgical assistants are expected to grow as the healthcare industry continues to grow. The CAAHEP reports that the average starting salary for surgical assistants, according to the National Surgical Assistant Association, is $55,000. The overall average salary for all surgical assistants is $75,000, but those in the top tiers can make between $120,000 and $200,000. Certification and additional years of experience can increase earnings potential.
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