Surgical Assistant vs. Surgical Technologist

Surgical assistants and surgical techs are on their feet a lot.
i Jochen Sands/Digital Vision/Getty Images
Surgical assistants and surgical techs are on their feet a lot.

Both surgical assistants and surgical technologists need a cool head to work in the stressful environment of the operating room. Although hospitals employ most assistants and techs, some work in doctors' offices, outpatient centers and dental offices. The two jobs have a lot in common, but surgical assisting requires more training. However, you can start as a technologist and use the career as a stepping stone to surgical assisting.


A surgical technologist doesn't do any cutting. Her major duties include getting the operating room and equipment ready, sterilizing instruments and handing over supplies to the doctors. Her work with patients is typically limited to moving them, washing and disinfecting the skin and applying drapes and dressings. A surgical assistant does these tasks, but she also need medical skills. She may insert urinary catheters, help move tissues and internal organs during surgery, insert drains and help with resuscitation. Under the supervision and direction of surgeons, she may also cut and clamp tissue.


The Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs accredits both surgical technology and surgical assisting programs. Technologist training typically takes a year or less for a certificate or two years for an associate degree. The studies include biology, medical vocabulary and anatomy, plus clinical practice. Surgical assisting programs typically require a prior health-related associate or bachelor's degree. Programs take 10 to 22 months, according to CAAHEP, and include classes in surgical anatomy, microbiology and technical skills, plus clinical experience. Experienced technologists who complete these programs can step up to surgical assisting.

Certification or Licensing

Surgical technologists and assistants with accredited training can pass exams for certification. Technologist certification is usually optional, but you can choose to become a certified surgical technologist from the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting or a tech in surgery-certified from the National Center for Competency Testing. Depending on local laws, certification is required or preferred for surgical assistants. You have three choices: certified surgical first assistant from the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting; the surgical assistant-certified from the American Board of Surgical Assistants; or the certified surgical assistant from the National Surgical Assistant Association, NSAA.


As of 2012, surgical technologists earned an average annual income of $43,480, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Eighty percent received between $29,710 and $60,240 per year. Not counting special pay, such as overtime or on-call pay, surgical assistants received an average salary between $50,000 and $60,000 annually as of 2011, according to an Association of Surgical Assistants survey. In a 2005 survey, the NSAA reported full-time pay for assistants ranging from $50,000 to $150,000 per year. Both surveys are cited by Surgical Assistant Resource.


Hospitals are expected to increase their use of surgical techs and assistants to help keep the lid on costs. The BLS predicts a 19 percent increase in jobs for surgical techs between 2010 and 2020, compared to a 14 percent increase for all jobs. The Association of Surgical Assistants also expects more jobs for surgical assistants beyond the approximately 5,000 now working.

2016 Salary Information for Surgical Technologists

Surgical technologists earned a median annual salary of $45,160 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, surgical technologists earned a 25th percentile salary of $36,980, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $55,030, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 107,700 people were employed in the U.S. as surgical technologists.

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