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Herzing Staff

Dissecting the Differences:  Surgical Technologists vs Surgical Assistants

Surgical teams are made up of surgeons, but also surgical technologists and surgical assistants — both of whom are key players in the operating room.

The operating room is one of the most fast-paced environments in healthcare, encompassing a variety of impactful positions that all play vital roles in surgical success. If you’re someone intrigued by a hands-on medical career, but intimidated by the amount of time, money and energy resources it may take to become a surgeon, consider familiarizing yourself with alternative career paths that are equally as influential, but may take less time to get started.

Surgical teams are made up of surgeons, yes, but also surgical technologists and surgical assistants — both of whom are key players in the operating room. While these two rewarding careers share some similarities, identifying the differences between them will help you to select the best path to your ideal career.

What is a Surgical Technologist?

Surgical technologists play a crucial part in a surgical care team, working alongside surgeons, surgical assistants, nurses, and anesthesiologists. They are responsible for preparing the patient, circulating nurse and the operating room for a successful surgery. This involves providing the necessary surgical tools to be used during the procedure. They also contribute to postoperative patient care by dressing wounds

Traits of Successful Surgical Technologists

Because the operating room is such a fast-paced, high-stakes environment, surgical technologists must be detail-oriented and diligent with their work. They often interact with the patient, which requires strong soft skills, including communication, organization, and empathy. 

Surgical technologists play a crucial part in a surgical care team. This involves making sure all equipment, instruments, and supplies are accounted for in the specific procedure and setting up the sterile field. Intra-operatively, they assist in passing instruments, holding a camera, suctioning, retracting, and other tasks. Post-operatively, they assist by helping with wound dressing, cleaning up the sterile field, and helping to clean the room in preparation for the next procedure. 

What is a Surgical Assistant?

Another key player in surgical teams is a surgical assistant. While some of their responsibilities mirror those of a surgical technologist, there are some important distinctions between these two rewarding careers. At a glance, surgical assistants have more responsibility during surgery, compared to the pre-and post-operative responsibilities of surgical technologists. For example, assistants help surgeons perform successful surgeries by making incisions, placing clamps, closing surgical sites, using staple devices, and securing drains, all while the patient is under anesthesia. 

  • Traits of Successful Surgical Assistants

Since most of a surgical assistant’s responsibilities occur during the surgery, they must stay cool, calm and collected to ensure that everything goes smoothly for both the patient and the head surgeon. With very little room for error, strong attention to detail is another necessary soft skill for those working in such a high-stakes environment. 

Educational Requirements 

Another key difference between surgical technologists and surgical assistants is the educational requirements to prepare you for work in the operating room.

To become a surgical assistant, you’ll need both an associate's and bachelor’s degree, while prospective surgical technologists can join the workforce immediately after earning their associate degree. Students enrolled in these programs will develop the necessary skills and knowledge to become an advanced part of the surgical team, learning basic patient care practices, aseptic techniques, surgical anatomy, and surgical procedure, as well as how to use surgical supplies and instruments.

While the roles may vary, both are rewarding careers that allow you to make a difference in the lives of others. Herzing University offers a comprehensive surgical technologist program that can jumpstart your career in as little as two years. Learn more about Herzing’s surgical technologist program and get one step closer to becoming the difference-maker you were destined to be.

Learn More About Our Surgical Technology Degree


* Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook 2022. BLS estimates do not represent entry-level wages and/or salaries. Multiple factors, including prior experience, age, geography market in which you want to work and degree field, will affect career outcomes and earnings. Herzing neither represents that its graduates will earn the average salaries calculated by BLS for a particular job nor guarantees that graduation from its program will result in a job, promotion, salary increase or other career growth.

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