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What does a Surgical Assistant do?

By Emma Lloyd
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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The main role of the surgical assistant is to provide support to a surgeon during operations. In addition, they typically also have duties to perform both before and after surgery. These types of health care careers are ideal for people who want to be involved in caring for patients during surgery, but who do not want the high-pressure job of the surgeon.

Prior to surgery, the surgical assistant may be required to set up the operating room by assembling all of the instruments that will be needed during the procedure, and by checking equipment to ensure it works correctly. They may also help prepare patients for surgery. Finally, they must also review the procedure and ensure that paperwork and permits are completed.

During a procedure, the surgical assistant will work closely with a surgeon or surgical nurse, usually working directly under the surgeon’s or nurse’s supervision. During the procedure, they have responsibilities pertaining to both the patient and surgeon. They must monitor the patient’s condition and vital signs to ensure they are physically coping with the surgery, and must also be attentive to the needs of the surgeon, and provide them with the instruments and equipment they need. Other assistance, such as cutting sutures, helping retract or clamp tissue, and closing and dressing wounds, is done as needed, and at the surgeon’s direction. When the procedure is completed, the surgical assistant might be responsible for cleaning equipment and ensuring the operating room is restocked for the next operation.

People working in medical careers such as this must have a mix of both personal and professional skills to help them cope in what can be a very demanding job. A surgical assistant should have excellent manual dexterity, high attention to detail, and the ability to work well even when under pressure or when time is short. The ability to concentrate and remain focused for long periods of time is also essential. Surgical assistants should work well in a team, and be able to work effectively independently as well.

In the United States, accredited programs for surgical assistants range in length from ten months to two years, and include theoretical as well as practical courses. Many surgical assisting qualifications have stringent requirements, such as the requirement for a three or four year degree, or an Associate’s degree together with job experience. As well as gaining a degree, most states require that a surgical assistant gain certification with an organization such as the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting.

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Discussion Comments
By irontoenail — On Aug 14, 2012

@Mor - To me, the difference between them is not really one of importance, but one of creativity. The surgeon is the one who decides what they are doing and the one who decides how it will be done.

The surgical assistant does whatever the surgeon asks them to. They probably have the same procedures to follow every time, with no room for any deviance or change.

By Mor — On Aug 13, 2012

@pastanaga - They make the schooling difficult on purpose, because being a surgeon is nothing like being a surgical medical assistant.

Being an assistant is a job to be proud of and it's difficult, of course, but nothing like the difficulty you'd face as a surgeon.

The buck stops with the surgeon. They are responsible for the life or the death of the patient, they can maim if they don't know what they're doing. They work for incredibly long shifts, doing extremely intricate and complicated work.

Surgical assistants need to know what they are doing as well, but their work is not nearly as important, simply because they aren't the one in charge.

By pastanaga — On Aug 12, 2012

I think a lot of people in surgical assistant jobs are people who once thought they would be a surgeon, but couldn't finish the schooling. I don't mean this as an insult, at all, my own sister went into school thinking she would train to be a doctor and didn't finish that training.

It seems like such a glamorous job but it takes such a huge amount of your life to get the qualifications. You have to be prepared to completely give up something like seven years in order to get there, and that's only if you're suited to the kind of exams and memorization that they require.

Some people just aren't going to be able to do that and others might not realize they don't want to do it. Becoming a surgical assistant is a way of getting to almost the same place without having to go through nearly as much schooling.

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