If you are interested in a healthcare career that assists Surgeons in surgical procedures in the OR then you could choose to become a Surgical Tech or a Surgical Assistant. 

The CSTs and SFAs, both are highly trained professionals who contribute significantly to the success of surgical procedures. 

But, both careers despite being highly rewarding, have some respective merits, demerits, and distinctions ranging from education requirements to scope of practice.

In this article, we’ll try to discuss these distinctions and much more. But you already know so much about Surgical Tech but so less about Surgical Assistants. So first, let’s discuss SFA’s, understanding who are they, what they do, their specialization areas, and how you could become one. 

Let’s begin –

Surgical Tech vs Surgical Assistant


What is a Surgical Assistant?

A Surgical Assistant or an SFA, also known as a Surgical First Assistant or Surgical Assistant Certified (SA-C), is a highly skilled and specialized healthcare professional who works closely with surgeons in the OR to ensure the safe and efficient completion of surgical procedures. 

Their primary role is to assist the surgeon in various aspects of the surgery, ensuring that the procedure runs smoothly and the patient receives optimal care.

What Do They Do?

They primarily assist the Surgeons before, during, and after the surgical procedures. They are responsible for monitoring the patient’s vital signs and alerting the surgical team to any changes or concerns. 

But that’s not it! They play a crucial role in surgical teams, and their responsibilities include –

Preoperative Preparation

Before the surgery begins, they help prepare the operating room by ensuring that all necessary instruments, equipment, and supplies are available and properly sterilized. They might also direct other professionals or assist in positioning the patient on the operating table. 

Intraoperative Assistance

During the surgery, they work directly alongside the surgeon, passing instruments and equipment as needed. They anticipate the surgeon’s needs, maintain a sterile field, and assist with tasks such as suturing, tissue manipulation, and hemostasis (controlling bleeding).

Their responsibility also involves – inserting catheters, placing tourniquets, sterilizing the operative area, marking the area, and opening and closing the surgical sites of the patient.

Postoperative Care

After the surgery, they may help transfer the patient to the recovery area and participate in the process of cleaning and restocking the operating room for the next procedure.

Tissue Handling

They are responsible for handling and manipulating tissues, organs, and structures within the surgical site. They must have a deep understanding of anatomy and surgical techniques to assist the surgeon effectively.

Suturing and Closure

They often play a crucial role in suturing incisions and wounds at the end of the procedure. They are also responsible for wound closure and ensuring that the incision site is properly sutured and dressed. 

Surgical Techniques

They are skilled in various surgical techniques and procedures, which may include retracting tissues, using electrocautery or laser devices, and applying specialized surgical instruments.


Since effective communication is vital in the operating room, they must maintain open communication with the surgical team, including the surgeon, nurses, anesthesiologists, Surgical techs, and other healthcare professionals. Clear communication ensures that the surgery proceeds smoothly and safely.

Emergency Response

In the event of unexpected complications or emergencies during surgery, they play a critical role in responding quickly and efficiently. They may assist in addressing emergencies such as excessive bleeding or other surgical complications.


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Surgical Assistant Specializations

Surgical Tech Salary

As a Surgical Assistant, you can choose to specialize in any field of surgical assisting. Here are the specializations – 

  • General Surgery
  • Neurosurgery
  • Cardiac surgery
  • Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery
  • Plastic surgery
  • Urology, and so on

How to Become a Surgical Assistant?

The SFAs are highly trained professionals who contribute significantly to the success of surgical procedures. 

Their expertise, attention to detail, and ability to work seamlessly with the surgical team make them invaluable members of the operating room staff.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you become one –

Step 1 – Educational Requirements

To become one, you need to possess a high school diploma or equivalent with some foundation in science courses, such as biology and anatomy, which can be beneficial.


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Step 2 – Enroll in a Degree or Certificate

If you possess the education requirements, you can now opt for online certification programs or try out the associate degree program. Just ensure to choose the accredited programs by the CAAHEP or ABHES.

Moreover, if you want to advance your education, you can pursue a bachelor’s degree in a related field, such as surgical technology or healthcare.

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Step 3 – Complete Surgical Assisting Training

During your educational program, you will receive comprehensive training in surgical assisting, including surgical procedures, sterile techniques, and patient care. This training may include both classroom instruction and hands-on clinical experience in the operating room.

Step 4 – Gain Practical Experience

After completing your formal education, you may need to complete a certain number of clinical hours as part of your training program.

Seek opportunities to work as a surgical technologist or in a related healthcare role to gain practical experience in surgical settings.

Step 5 – Get Certified  

To become a certified Surgical First Assistant, you must pass the Certified Surgical First Assistant (CSFA) examination, which is administered by the NBSTSA, ABSA (American Board of Surgical Assistants), or NSAA (National Surgical Assistants Association).

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Step 6 – Continuing Education and Recertification

You should maintain your certification by fulfilling continuing education requirements. This may involve completing a certain number of continuing education credits or retaking the certification exam at specified intervals.

Besides that, you should also get training certifications in CPR (Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation) and BLS (Basic Life Support).

Step 7 – Join Professional Organizations

You should consider joining professional organizations like the Association of Surgical Assistants (ASA) or the American College of Surgeons (ACS) as they can provide networking opportunities and resources.

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Step 8 – Job Search and Employment

Now, you are ready to start your job search. Surgical First Assistants are in demand in hospitals, surgical centers, and other healthcare settings.

Create a strong resume and cover letter highlighting your education, certification, and relevant experience. Prepare for job interviews by showcasing your knowledge, skills, and dedication to patient care.

Once hired, you will work closely with surgeons and surgical teams in the operating room, providing essential support during surgical procedures.

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Surgical Tech vs Surgical Assistant

pros and cons of Surgical Technologist

While both surgical technologists and surgical assistants play essential roles in the operating room, surgical assistants have more advanced training and a broader scope of practice, including a hands-on role in surgery itself.

Surgical technologists primarily focus on maintaining a sterile environment and providing support to the surgical team. The specific roles and responsibilities may vary depending on the surgical team, facility, and state regulations.

Here’s how they differ –

Interest and Goals

If you are interested in a healthcare career that assists the Surgeons in the surgical procedures in the OR then you should consider a career as a surgical assistant.

But if you want a career in healthcare without the need to touch blood, but still be part of surgical procedures in the OR, then Surgical Tech is the career for you.


Surgical Techs

To become one, you typically need to complete a diploma, certificate, or associate degree program in surgical technology. To enroll in the program, you need to possess a high school diploma or equivalent.

Surgical Assistants

To become one, you need to complete a separate program in surgical assisting, which is typically more in-depth and can result in a separate certification.

You also need to possess a high school diploma or equivalent to enroll in the program. As an SFA, you need to undergo more advanced and specialized training.

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Surgical Techs

Post-completion of your program, you can choose to get certified as the CST. However, certification as a CST is not always mandatory. Since many employers prefer or require certification, you should opt to certify through NBSTSA, AHA, or NCCT.

Surgical Assistants

Here, post-completion of the program, you must get certified and become a certified surgical assistant, or CSFA. You can certify through NBSTSA, ABSA, or NSAA.

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Role and Responsibilities

Surgical Techs

They are responsible for preparing the operating room, arranging surgical equipment and supplies, and ensuring a sterile environment. They assist surgeons and nurses during surgeries by passing instruments and supplies, handling specimens, and maintaining the sterile field.

Surgical Assistants

They have an advanced skill set that includes assisting in surgery directly and performing specific surgical tasks. Their responsibilities may include suturing, clamping blood vessels, handling tissues, and providing exposure to the surgical site.

Scope of Practice

Surgical Techs

CSTs primarily focus on maintaining the sterile field and providing support to the surgical team. They do not perform surgical procedures or make incisions.

Surgical Assistants

CSFAs have a broader scope of practice that includes actively assisting in surgical procedures, performing specific tasks, and sometimes making incisions under the surgeon’s supervision.

Earning Potential

As per BLS salary data 2022, the annual average salary of Surgical Technologists is $55,960, with an hourly rate of around $27.

However, the BLS states the annual average salary of Surgical Assistants is $57,290 with an hourly rate of around $28.

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In Conclusion

Both CSTs and SFA’s, are highly trained professionals contributing massively in their own ways to the success of surgical procedures.

However, both have some respective merits, demerits, and distinctions ranging from education requirements to scope of practice.

Lastly, irrespective of what you choose as a career for yourself, remember that both professions require expertise, attention to detail, and the ability to work seamlessly, and that’s what makes them invaluable members of the surgical team. 


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About the Author
Grant founded OnlineDegree.com with a purpose-driven mission: make college accessible and affordable for everyone. After graduating college with an overwhelming amount of debt, he was determined to change how students embark on their education. He's a frequent speaker and author in higher education, and has been featured in Forbes, Bloomberg Businessweek, Business Insider, American Express, AOL, MSN, Thrive Global, Reader's Digest, Inside Higher Ed, Evolllution, EducationDive, and nearly 100 radio shows and podcasts.