Operating room (OR) assistants, also called surgical technologists, work to support the surgical team and offer support during operations. With guidance from surgeons, registered nurses, and anesthesiologists, OR assistants primarily provide patient care and maintain a sterile environment during surgery.
You can become an OR assistant either by getting certified as a surgical tech or nursing assistant. Neither of these paths requires extensive education or training, but both can set you up for long-term career success in the medical field. OR assistants, as well as CNAs, may work in different healthcare environments, from large hospitals to small outpatient facilities, but no matter where they are, they play a crucial role in the operating room and the medical field as a whole.
OR assistants work under the supervision of other medical professionals with more advanced training. Generally, your responsibilities include maintaining a clean and sterile environment before, during, and after surgery; providing basic care to the patient during surgery; and assisting the surgeon or other members of the medical team on an as-needed basis.
These job responsibilities may require you to do the following:
Of course, your actual duties can vary depending on the facility you work in and your own level of experience. If you’re newly certified, you will likely have to work up to some of the more advanced tasks, especially those that require you to work directly with patients.
To take care of all your on-the-job duties, you will have to learn and develop certain skills. This includes technical skills, such as proper handwashing and the right way to put on and take off personal protective equipment. However, you will also have to cultivate certain essential qualities and characteristics to work in a healthcare assistant role, such as being empathetic, having strong oral communication skills, and being able to work in high-pressure situations. It’s crucial to find the right balance between these clinical and soft skills in order to work effectively and successfully as an OR assistant.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data from May 2019, surgical technologists earn a median salary of $48,300 per year or $23.22 per hour. This rate is notably higher than the salary of similar healthcare positions, including general certified nursing assistants and hospice aides.
There are many factors that affect the salary of individuals in healthcare assistant roles. The type of setting you work in, the state you work in, and your previous education and experience all play a role in your compensation as an OR assistant. Depending on your background and where you work, your actual salary may vary. However, this is one of the best-paying jobs you can get without a bachelor’s degree.
The BLS expects the demand for qualified surgical technologists and operating room assistants to grow as much as 9% by the year 2028, which is much faster than average growth for all occupations. This is due to the growing aging population, longer average life expectancy, and advances in medical technology that have made surgery safer and more accessible.
Overall, the job outlook for healthcare assistants is great, both in the short- and long-term. In addition to actual OR assistant or surgical tech positions, you will also likely have myriad opportunities to advance your career in healthcare in this role.
There are multiple ways you can become an operating room assistant; but no matter which route you take, you will need a combination of education, hands-on training, and testing and certification before you can work in this position. Luckily, this process doesn’t take as long as becoming a nurse or doctor, and you can still start this career even if you have little to no experience.
First and foremost, you do need some formal education to become an OR assistant. You will need to enroll in a surgical technology program at a vocational school, hospital training program, or community college. You can graduate from these programs with either a certificate, diploma, or associate’s degree. Depending on the credential you’re working to complete, your program could take as little as nine months or up to two years.
Whatever program you choose, make sure it is accredited by The Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs or The Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools. If you complete a program accredited by one or both of these organizations, you can obtain professional certification after graduation.
During your program, you’ll likely take a variety of courses related to the medical field and the healthcare system. This could include learning basic care skills similar to those in a CNA training course, as well as more advanced material such as medical terminology, anatomy and physiology, and pharmacology. The courses you take will depend upon the type and duration of the program you enroll in.
You do not have to get certified to work as an OR assistant. However, employers generally prefer candidates who are certified, and though it is not legally required, some organizations may require their employees to maintain active certification. Either way, you may struggle to get hired without it and since the process is relatively simple, it’s probably worth your while to get fully certified.
The National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting is responsible for all OR assistant certification. They offer two main certifications:
Both certifications require you to take and pass the corresponding exam. They also require you to renew your certification every two years, either through another examination or by taking continuing education courses.
You can also work as an OR assistant by becoming a certified nursing assistant. CNAs perform similar job duties to OR assistants, making them qualified to work in that same role. Many employers recognize this and actively recruit CNAs to work as OR assistants. Some may be in search of CNAs to support the surgery team, while others may want OR assistants who are certified as or have a background as a CNA. Even if an employer doesn’t specify that they are looking for a CNA, it is often an accepted credential that verifies your knowledge and expertise as someone who can support patients, as well as other members of a healthcare team. No matter what your ultimate career goal is, working as a CNA is worth your while if you want to get your foot in the door of the operating room.
To get your CNA certification, you must enroll in a CNA training program at a hospital, community college, or vocational school. You may be able to complete it in as little as four to 16 weeks, though this can vary greatly from state to state. Upon completing your program, you must take the exam from the National Nurse Aide Assessment Program. Once you have passed the exam, you will be certified as a nursing assistant. Depending on the state you live in, you may also need to take continuing education or renew your certification every few years to keep it active and up-to-date.
After getting certified as an OR assistant or CNA, you will be fully prepared to find work in the operating room. This career provides a unique opportunity to engage directly with patient care and earn a comfortable living, all while still setting yourself up for future advancements in healthcare. As you spend more time in the OR, you may discover other exciting career opportunities that are available to you.