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How to Become a Surgical Assistant: 5 Steps to Becoming a Surgical Tech


Surgical technologists are gaining rising importance as medical professionals who assist surgeons during complicated medical procedures and surgeries. While states don't require surgical technicians to have national certification or be licensed, you'll find that credentialed surgical technologists are more in-demand and have many more options in terms of employment, experience and overall career growth than their non-certified counterparts.

If you're wondering how to become a surgical assistant, keep reading to explore the steps you'll need to take on the road to this rewarding and valuable career.

5 Steps to Becoming a Surgical Assistant

1.Get the Right Training

2.Study and Prepare for the Certification Exam

3.Pass the Exam

4.Land Your First Job

5.Keep Learning

Surgical Tech Job Overview

Surgical technologists are key members of a surgical team, assisting physicians, nurses and other medical professionals before, during and after surgeries or other medical procedures. Before a medical procedure, surgical techs are primarily charged with preparing the operating room for upcoming procedures and surgeries – this includes sterilizing surgery tools, stocking surgical supplies and generally confirming that all necessary equipment is in place before a procedure begins. In some cases, a surgical assistant may also help prepare a patient for surgery, transfer the patient to the operating room and help set them up for the operation, which may include cleaning and sterilizing the incision site.

During a procedure, a surgical technologist passes the proper tools and pieces of surgical equipment to doctors and nurses, along with making sure that all tools and materials remain appropriately sterilized. They also may connect tubing and drains, prepare specimens for laboratory analysis and/or operate suction machines. And after a procedure, a surgical tech may dress surgical wounds or incision sites, assist in moving the patient to a recovery site and/or prepare the operating room for the next scheduled surgery or procedure.

Like many other health care professionals, a surgical tech may work long hours and odd shifts, especially during the first few years of employment. While most surgical technologists work in hospitals, that isn't the only option – others work in outpatient care centers or doctors' or dentists' offices. It all depends on the needs of the individual practice as to whether a surgical tech's skills make sense outside of the hospital environment.

Overall, becoming a surgical technologist offers a great deal of job security, in both the short- and long-term. Surgical technologists can expect to enjoy healthy employment growth in the near future, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which predicts that employment for surgical technologists will grow by 15 percent for 2014-2024 – this is higher than average for all occupations. The projected growth is attributed largely to the aging of the Baby Boomer population, which puts increased demands on the medical system.

Surgery tech salary will vary by level of education, expertise, hospital size, market, and work experience, but the mean salary is reported at a little over $44,000, while top earners can expect to take home nearly $65,000 each year.

5 Steps to Becoming a Surgical Assistant

While surgical techs must master a great deal of technical skill for certification, they must also possess professional skills in order to be successful within the work environment – skills like organization, time management, active listening, critical thinking and an ability to collaborate as part of a team. If you're interested in a career as a surgical assistant, follow these 5 basic steps:

1. Get the Right Training

To become a surgical tech, you'll first need to go through some type of surgical assistant program or education program that combines both classroom instruction and coursework with hands-on training. Such a program might end with a diploma, certification or associate's degree – you have lots of choices. While diploma and certificate education programs can often be completed in under a year, you'll need to plan for at least two years of study if you choose to pursue an associate's degree, and four years for a bachelor's degree.

Diploma and certificate surgical tech programs are especially good for people who are looking to enter the surgical technician field as quickly as possible. This shorter time frame is largely due to their focus exclusively on surgical technology, without more general knowledge courses or electives. On the other hand, the associate's degree option lays a good foundation if you believe you might like to build upon your skills and experience for future promotions or additional certifications.

Either way, you'll want to look for an accredited program through the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education – it's not necessarily a requirement, but accredited programs help lend credibility to your education and may help make you eligible for other professional certifications. It's also important to note that all employers will require that you have at least a high school diploma, but not necessarily a degree.

The type of coursework you can expect with these programs include pharmacology, surgical procedures, sterilization techniques, anatomy and physiology, medical terminology, patient care and more. In particular, those enrolled in associate's degree programs also will have to take some general education courses and complete separate science requirements.

You'll also need to complete an externship to gain hands-on experience – many students have the chance to observe certified surgical assistants and health technologists, sometimes in clinical rotations through specialties like vascular, dental or orthopedic. As students become more familiar and advanced through their surgical tech training, they are given the chance to operate equipment in surgical settings.

2. Study and Prepare for the Certification Exam

It should come as no surprise that many medical employers will prefer to hire a surgical technician or surgical assistant who is certified over one who isn't. Surgical tech certifications can be earned through the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting, which offers the Certified Surgical Technologist designation. The National Center for Competency Testing also offers a highly recognized credential.

No matter which certification you choose, you'll need to complete continuing education requirements regularly throughout your career. For example, the CST certification lets you choose whether to earn 60 continuing education credits or to retake your examination every four years. The NCCT also has similar recertifying requirements to ensure that the surgical technicians who bear those credentials remain knowledgeable and reliably trained throughout the entirety of their careers.

You have your pick of several resources to help you study and prepare for your certification exam. For example, the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting makes available a variety of test-preparation materials such as an exam content outline, study aids, practice exam, and even a test-prep app that you can download for your smartphone.

3. Pass the Exam

The CST exam consists of 175 questions, and 150 of those are scored, while 25 are tested for use on future exams. You must earn a 70 percent score in order to pass the exam. As always with a standardized test of this type, you should call and make your appointment with your testing center as early as possible in order to get your desired date. Make sure you know the location of the testing center, along with the guidelines of the center and what you can bring with you.

4. Land Your First Job

Surgical tech jobs are plentiful in every state across the country, but make sure you carefully research the requirements for the state in which you want to practice so that you know for sure you're in compliance before you start interviewing. Check for openings in your area, and make sure to tap into professional organizations like the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting and the Association of Surgical Technologists, both of which offer online career resources that can help lead you to job opportunities that may be right for you.

5. Keep Learning

It's important to stay up to date with your skills in order to remain certified, which you can do through continuing education units or through re-certification tests. Some surgical techs also decide to put their continuing education work toward furthering their careers. Some may study to become a surgical first assistant, while others go on to become registered nurses or move into the administrative area of health care. Either path you choose, you may need additional education and certification in order to continue growing as a professional.

Medical Equipment Needed as a Surgical Tech

Because of the vital nature of a surgical technician's work, he or she must be familiar with a variety of medical and surgical tools and pieces of equipment. Often before surgery, surgical techs will open up their facility's sterile processing area and make sure that all autoclaves are working properly for appropriate sterilization of surgical equipment – familiarity with using an autoclave is a must. A surgical tech also will typically receive a list from the surgical team of all supplies that will be needed to perform upcoming procedures – this list also will designate the individual surgeon's preferences and whether he or she is right- or left-handed, which helps determine how the surgical tech should set up the room and arrange equipment on Mayo stands.

Once the patient is in place within the operating room, the surgical tech then must correctly apply sterile surgical drapes around the patient, so the surgical tech must be well-versed in using a Steri-Drape correctly and making sure it is securely and appropriately placed.

During the procedure, the surgical technician's role becomes vitally important, as he or she is tasked with making sure the surgeon has the correct piece of equipment for the task at hand. This requires an intimate familiarity with all pieces of surgical equipment the surgeon will use throughout the procedure – and this includes more than just surgical blades and scissors. A successful surgical technologist will know the names and functionalities of more than hundreds of specialty medical instruments. In fact, this is one of the most extensive topics covered in any surgical technician training program.

Technicians may also need to know how to use some of these pieces of equipment so that they can assist the surgeon with tasks throughout a procedure – tasks like retracting an incision site so a surgeon can better see what he or she is doing.

After a procedure, a surgical technician is charged with taking inventory of all needles, sponges, surgical gloves and any other materials used throughout the surgery in order to make sure all are accounted for and nothing was inadvertently left inside the patient.

How to Become a Surgical Assistant

Surgical technologists are responsible for important and even lifesaving work as part of a surgical team. In order to be successful, a surgical tech will have a solid blend of key technical knowledge and skills, plus transferable professional skills like the ability to think ahead and anticipate a surgical team's needs.

If you're interested in becoming a surgical technologist, you have several options for going through the certification process and starting your career. Follow the steps listed here, and you'll be on your way to an interesting and fulfilling career where every day offers new challenges. As a surgical tech, you will make a real, meaningful difference in patients' lives.