Surgical Assistant vs. Surgical Tech

Learn about a surgical assistant's responsibilities in the operating room vs. those of a surgical tech.

What is a Surgical Assistant?

smiling surgical assistant in scrubs

Although the titles of surgical technologist and surgical assistant are sometimes used interchangeably in the medical field, there are significant differences between them, as well as several alternative names for each.

Occasionally, the term surgical technician is used to denote someone who has primarily on-the-job training, with little to no supplemental education, whereas a surgical technologist has earned his or her degree from an accredited program.

Surgical Assistants

Surgical assistants are also members of the operating room team. These professionals can do all the work that surgical technologists do, but they often have a more hands-on role during the procedure. Surgical assistants help the surgeon with tasks such as these:

  • Sponging
  • Suturing
  • Suctioning
  • Holding retractors
  • Hemostasis (staunching bleeding)
  • Treating wounds

Surgical assistants are also referred to as first assistants or non-physician surgical assistants. Some surgical assistants step into the job after earning a surgical assistant degree from a certified program, while others begin as surgical technologists and receive additional training on the job to work their way up to a first assistant position.

Once certified, a surgical assistant can become a Certified First Assistant (CFA) or Certified Surgical Assistant (CSA). Like CST and TS-C certification, the certification process for CFAs and CSAs can improve a candidate's resume and open doors for higher paying jobs.

Surgical Technologists

Surgical techs are members of the medical teams that work in operating rooms. Their duties often include the following tasks:

  • Preparing the operating room for surgery
  • Setting up the surgical instruments and equipment
  • Maintaining sterile conditions
  • Monitoring the patient and equipment during surgery
  • Prepare patients and transport them to and from surgery

Surgical technologist is the proper term for these specialists, but people working in this position are also sometimes called surgical technicians, operating room technicians, surgical techs or, simply, scrubs.

After receiving a certificate or diploma from an accredited institution, a surgical tech can take an exam to qualify as a Certified Surgical Technologist (CST) or a Tech in Surgery-Certified (TS-C), which can significantly improve earnings potential.

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