Surgical Assistant vs. Surgical Tech

HealthcareOctober 13, 2023

Approximately 15 million people in the U.S. undergo some form of surgery each year, according to the American College of Surgeons. All of these patients expect the surgeons who perform their surgeries to provide them with quality healthcare so they can achieve positive health outcomes. To help them in this effort, the surgeons must rely on assistance from other healthcare professionals. 

Individuals who work as surgical assistants and surgical technologists are instrumental in ensuring that surgeries are successful. For people who aren’t familiar with these jobs, comparing surgical assistant vs. surgical tech roles can be helpful to learn what working in each position entails. Anyone considering enrolling in a medical technology program can benefit from exploring the responsibilities of surgical assistants and surgical techs and the differences between the two professions.

What Is a Surgical Assistant? 

The role of surgical assistants is to help surgeons during operations so the procedures can lead to the best results for patients. While working under a surgeon’s supervision, surgical assistants perform tasks before, during, and after surgery. 

Surgical Assistant Duties and Responsibilities

Surgical assistants have a wide range of duties and responsibilities. Prior to surgery, surgical assistants can be responsible for:

  • Gathering supplies and personal protective equipment
  • Assessing patients’ vital signs
  • Preparing patients for surgery

During surgery, surgical assistants perform duties such as:

  • Assisting surgeons to see operating sites by suctioning or irrigating the sites
  • Helping to stop blood flow through the use of clamps or clips
  • Closing skin with sutures or staples

After surgery, surgical assistants carry out duties such as:

  • Performing wound management services
  • Offering pain management services
  • Providing services to prevent infection and other complications

Surgical Assistant Skills

Surgical assistants have extensive technical skills in areas such as:

  • Patient positioning
  • Incisions and absorption techniques
  • Use of retraction instruments
  • Tissue dissection
  • Handling of surgical instruments
  • Use of endoscopic and robotics equipment

Examples of soft skills that enable surgical assistants to do their jobs well include:

  • Teamwork
  • Communication
  • Problem-solving
  • Stress management
  • Time management

What Is a Surgical Tech?

Like surgical assistants, surgical techs (or surgical technologists) carry out duties that help surgeons perform operations that can lead to positive health outcomes. And, similar to surgical assistants, surgical techs work under a surgeon’s supervision, and are responsible for tasks before, during, and after surgery. 

Surgical Tech Duties and Responsibilities

Before surgery takes place, surgical techs carry out duties such as:

  • Gathering equipment necessary to perform surgery
  • Setting up sterile tables and stands with surgical instruments and supplies
  • Performing presurgery counts of items, such as surgical instruments and sponges

While surgery is in progress, surgical techs perform duties such as:

  • Anticipating surgeons’ needs and passing surgeons necessary instruments
  • Coordinating cameras or adjusting instruments and equipment
  • Maintaining the sterilization of instruments and equipment

 After surgery concludes, surgical techs perform services such as:

  • Cleaning and sterilizing the operating room
  • Preparing the operating room for the next patient
  • Performing post-surgery counts of items, such as surgical instruments and sponges

Surgical Tech Skills

Surgical techs have wide-ranging technical skills in areas such as:

  • Sterilization techniques
  • Record-keeping for surgical equipment
  • Use and adjustment of medical equipment
  • Preparation of immobilization devices 
  • Proper handling and transfer of instruments to surgeons
  • Preparing and passing off specimens

Surgical techs also benefit from developing soft skills in areas such as:

  • Teamwork
  • Communication
  • Anticipation 
  • Focus
  • Reliability

Differences Between Surgical Assistants and Surgical Techs 

Surgical assistants and surgical techs are both essential in the operating room, but reviewing certain characteristics of the two roles can help illustrate how they differ. 

Primary Focus

Each of the positions has a unique primary focus. Specifically:

  • Surgical assistants primarily perform hands-on responsibilities directly related to surgery.
  • Surgical techs concentrate on ensuring a safe and sterile environment for surgery.

Career Requirements

The requirements for these roles also differ slightly. To work as a surgical assistant, an individual needs to:

  • Complete a surgical assistant educational program, such as an associate degree or certificate program
  • Gain work experience in an operating room
  • Obtain certification from the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting, the National Commission for the Certification of Surgical Assistants, or the American Board of Surgical Assistants

To work as a surgical tech, an individual needs to:

  • Complete a surgical tech educational program, such as an associate degree, diploma, or certificate program
  • Obtain certification from the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting or the National Center for Competency Testing

According to the Association of Surgical Assistants, surgical assistants frequently begin their careers in healthcare as surgical techs and then acquire the additional education and credentials to become surgical assistants.

Work Settings

Surgical assistants’ and surgical techs’ work settings are slightly different as well. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that, in 2022, the top three work settings for surgical assistants were:

  • Hospitals, which employed 43% of surgical assistants
  • Dental offices, which employed 24% of surgical assistants
  • Physicians’ offices, which employed 19% of surgical assistants

In contrast, the top three work settings for surgical techs in 2022 were:

  • Hospitals, which employed 71% of surgical techs
  • Outpatient care centers, which employed 12% of surgical techs
  • Physicians’ offices, which employed 12% of surgical techs

Surgical Assistant vs. Surgical Tech: Job Outlook

The BLS has projected 5% job growth for both surgical assistants and surgical techs from 2022 through 2032. That growth rate exceeds the BLS’s 3% projected growth rate for all occupations for the same time period. The BLS attributes job growth for surgical assistants and surgical techs to increases in demand for surgery as the population ages, as well as growth in the number of surgeries conducted at outpatient facilities. 

Another factor positively affecting the job outlook for surgical assistants and surgical techs is that U.S. hospitals are dealing with a significant backlog in surgeries following the COVID-19 pandemic. The American Hospital Association issued a report in 2023 in which executives from several hospitals noted a need for more surgical techs to help address this backlog. According to a 2023 report from the healthcare consulting firm Advisory Board, healthcare organizations also are addressing the surgery backlog by extending operating hours and bringing in additional staff to staff them. 

Surgical Assistants and Surgical Techs Play Vital Roles in Healthcare

When working as surgical assistants or surgical techs, individuals have the opportunity to make important contributions to healthcare that can improve patients’ lives. Ensuring that patients receive effective surgery in a safe environment is critical to positive health outcomes. 

Individuals who have an interest in working in the medical field should explore the medical technologist and technician programs at Fortis, including the surgical technologist associate degree program, to learn how these programs can help them achieve their career goals. Offering a blend of traditional classroom instruction and hands-on skill development, these programs can lead to rewarding careers. Take the first step on your healthcare career path today.

Recommended Readings

Choosing a Surgical Specialty Area as a Surgical Technologist
The Role of a Sterile Processing Technician
Your First Day as Surgical Technologist

Advisory Board, “How 7 Health Systems Are Tackling Delayed Surgery Backlogs”
American Board of Surgical Assistants, “Surgical Assistant — Certified (SA-C) Handbook”
American College of Surgeons, Strong for Surgery
American Hospital Association, “Tackling the Surgical Backlog”
Association of Surgical Assistants, Core Curriculum for Surgical Assisting
Association of Surgical Assistants, Who Is a Surgical Assistant
Association of Surgical Technologists, Job Description: Surgical Technologist
Indeed, “How to Become a Surgical Assistant (Plus Salary and Job Description)”Indeed, “How to Become a Surgical Technician (With Helpful FAQS)”
Indeed, “Surgical Technologist vs. Surgical Assistant: Differences”
Indeed, “What Does a Day in the Life of a Surgical Tech Look Like?”
National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting, About Us
National Center for Competency Testing, Tech in Surgery TS-C (NCCT) Certification
National Commission for the Certification of Surgical Assistants, About NCCSA
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Surgical Assistants and Technologists