Surgical Tech Career Information
Surgeons get a lot of the credit when it comes to performing successful surgeries. But it takes more than just one person to ensure that a patient leaves the operating room with a positive outcome; it takes a whole team of dedicated professionals. By asking, "What is a surgical tech?" you're inquiring about one of the most crucial roles in all of healthcare.
What is a Surgical Tech?
Surgical techs, formally known as "surgical technologists," work where the critical action is. In fact, their impact cannot be underestimated. So, what is a surgical technologist?
A surgical technologist is:
- Someone who works in the operating room alongside other professionals such as a surgeon, surgical assistant, circulator, and anesthesia provider
- A healthcare professional with big responsibilities, especially when it comes to preparing and maintaining a sterile operating room
- Not a nurse
- Not the equivalent of a surgical assistant
- Sometimes also called a "surgical technician," "operating room technician," "scrub," or "scrub tech"
What Does a Surgical Tech Do?
You might be wondering, "What is a surgical technician involved in?"
Depending on their experience and specific roles, surgical technicians (i.e., surgical technologists) perform essential duties before, during, and after surgical procedures. No matter what, they always help to anticipate the needs of their supervising surgeon and provide quality patient care with a special focus on safety and efficiency.
So, what does a surgical tech do?
Generally speaking, a surgical technologist can perform three main roles:
- Scrub surgical technologist ("scrub tech")
- Circulating surgical technologist
- Second assisting surgical technologist
Each role corresponds with a different set of duties, which sometimes overlap.
What Does a Scrub Tech Do?
A scrub surgical technologist, also known as a "scrub tech" or "surgical technologist in the scrub role" (STSR), carries out responsibilities that can include:
- Checking operating room supplies and setting up surgical tables, trays, instruments, equipment, medications, solutions, and anything else necessary for a given operation
- Helping to set up sterile surgical drapes
- Preparing sterile scrubs, gowns, and gloves for the surgeon and the rest of the surgical team and assisting them as they put them on
- Counting supplies and instruments with the circulator
- Passing surgical instruments and supplies to the surgeon
- Preparing sterile dressings
- Maintaining high sterile standards
- Counting supplies and instruments with the circulator before a surgical patient's incision is closed
- Cleaning and preparing surgical instruments for sterilization
- Helping to clean and disinfect the operating room
- Assisting with the preparation of the operating room for the next surgical patient
What Does a Circulating Surgical Technologist Do?
A circulating surgical technologist is a non-sterile member of the surgical team, has more interaction with patients, and performs duties such as:
- Helping to ensure that the right patient undergoes the right surgical procedure by checking a patient's chart and consent forms and verifying his or her identity and the surgery to be performed
- Transferring the patient to the operating room and assisting with placing him or her on the operating room table
- Reassuring the patient and making sure that he or she is safe and comfortable
- Assisting the anesthesia provider
- Using appropriate equipment to position the patient for the surgical procedure
- Applying tourniquets, monitors, electrosurgical grounding pads, and any other necessary surgical accessories
- Preparing the patient's skin as necessary (washing, shaving, disinfecting) prior to sterile draping
- Counting supplies and instruments with the scrub surgical technologist
- Keeping accurate written records
- Providing answers about the patient to the surgeon
- Constantly assessing the patient's condition and surgical team's progress
- Anticipating the need for extra supplies and retrieving them if necessary
- Opening packages of sterile supplies
- Properly caring for surgically removed specimens that must be sent for laboratory testing
- Counting supplies and instruments with the scrub surgical technologist before the patient's incision is closed
- Securing dressings after the patient's surgical incision is closed
- Helping to transfer the patient to a recovery room
- Assisting with the cleaning of the operating room and preparing it for the next patient
What Does a Second Assisting Surgical Technologist Do?
A second assisting surgical technologist assists the surgeon and surgical first assistant during an operation. A surgical tech in this role often performs some of the same duties as a scrub surgical technologist but also carries out tasks that can include:
- Holding retractors or surgical instruments as directed by the surgeon
- Sponging or suctioning areas of the open surgical site
- Cutting suture material as directed by the surgeon
- Applying an electrically heated instrument to clamps used to stop bleeding
- Connecting drains to suction equipment
- Applying dressings to closed wounds
What is the Difference Between a Surgical Technologist and a Surgical Assistant?
The main difference between a surgical technologist and a surgical assistant is that a surgical assistant must have more advanced, specialized training. Surgical assistants are more commonly known as "surgical first assistants."
With extra education, some surgical technologists can work their way up to become surgical first assistants.
In addition to having the ability to do anything that a surgical tech can do, a surgical first assistant is trained to perform duties under a surgeon's direction that can include:
- Providing aid in exposure (helping to ensure the incision site is ideally positioned)
- Hemostasis (i.e., stopping the flow of blood and controlling hemorrhaging)
- Other technical functions during the course of a surgery that help provide the best possible outcome for the patient
Surgical first assistants can come from many backgrounds, not just surgical technology. They are frequently medical or surgical residents, physician's assistants, or nurses.
Where Can a Surgical Technologist Work?
Most surgical technologists work in hospitals. Operating rooms are the most common work environment. However, surgical techs can also be found in delivery rooms.Other work settings that utilize surgical technologists include:
- Outpatient clinics (for physicians and dentists that perform surgery)
- Ambulatory surgical centers (places that perform same-day surgeries)
- Special mobile surgical teams (such as those focused on organ transplants)
In some cases, a surgical technologist can be employed directly by a surgeon and be known as a "private scrub."
What are the Benefits of Being a Surgical Technologist?
Many surgical technologists wouldn't want to do anything else. Here are a few of the most notable reasons why becoming a surgical technologist could be an excellent choice for you:
- Personal satisfaction from doing meaningful work—It can be deeply rewarding to have a direct impact on patient outcomes and to know that you make a positive contribution to society every day through your work.
- Normal and predictable hours—Although you may be put on call or have the opportunity to work extra or longer shifts, the normal work week for most surgical technologists is 40 hours over five days.
- Inspiring moments—Being part of an operating room team can be thrilling, particularly when you can contribute to saving a life.
- Stability—Experienced surgical technologists generally have pretty stable job security due to high demand for their services. In fact, the surgical technologist job outlook is expected to remain bright for the foreseeable future.
- Stimulation—Boredom is rare since there are new cases and new challenges every day.
- Good pay—Although surgical technician pay varies, most surgical technology salaries provide a good living, especially as surgical techs gain more experience.
What is the Typical Salary of Surgical Technologist Jobs?
The typical salary of surgical technologist jobs can vary significantly depending on geographic location, work setting, experience, role on the surgical team, and certification status.
So, how much do surgical techs make?
According to national estimates from May 2012, the typical salary of a surgical technician looked like this: *
- The median salary for surgical tech jobs was $41,790.
- The highest-earning 10 percent made $60,240 or more.
- The lowest-earning 10 percent made $29,710 or less.
In the field of surgical technology, pay also comes in the form of good benefits such as paid vacation and sick leave, health insurance that includes vision and dental coverage, life insurance, a retirement program, and sometimes even tuition reimbursement and child care assistance.
Although most jobs are found in hospitals, other work settings are frequently better-paying for an experienced surgical technologist. Salary often increases for seasoned surgical techs who specialize in a particular surgical area and find employment within physicians' offices or other outpatient care centers.
What are the Surgical Tech Requirements I Need to Know?
Surgical tech requirements can vary a lot depending on where you live and work. Many states have passed (or plan to pass) legislation that requires new surgical technologists to either register with the state or to become professionally certified.
In most states, professional certification is still technically voluntary. However, many hospitals require or prefer surgical technologists who are certified.
Which States Require Registration or Certification?
In order to work as a surgical tech in certain states, you will need to meet their surgical technician requirements. Here is how things break down for new surgical techs in those states:
- Indiana, South Carolina, and Tennessee all require new surgical technologists to hold and maintain professional certification from the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA). The NBSTSA administers an exam that, if passed, results in being awarded the designation of Certified Surgical Technologist (CST).
- Texas requires new surgical technologists to have successfully completed an accredited surgical technology program and to hold and maintain professional certification from either the NBSTSA or the National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT).
- Idaho requires surgical technologists to have either certification from the NBSTSA or to have successfully completed, at minimum, a one-year surgical tech program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP).
- Colorado and Washington both require anyone practicing as a surgical technologist to be registered, which does not require certification.
- Legislation that would regulate surgical technologists in one of the above ways is pending in California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, and Wisconsin.
What Do I Need to Know About Professional Surgical Tech Organizations, Exams, and Designations?
The field of surgical technology is home to a number of organizations and designations, and that's a good thing. It means that the people who work within the field are committed to making sure that surgical technology remains a great career choice.
So as you consider becoming a surgical tech, it's wise to understand the following points about surgical tech certification requirements:
Certified Surgical Technologist (CST)
- In order to call yourself a Certified Surgical Technologist or CST, you will need to successfully pass the NBSTSA exam and maintain your certification status.
- The Certified Surgical Technologist (CST) designation (awarded by the NBTSA) must be renewed every four years. In order to maintain this certification, you will be required to earn 60 hours of approved continuing education over each four-year period and retake and pass the NBSTSA exam at the end of each period.
Tech in Surgery-Certified (TS-C)
- The National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT) offers surgical tech certification, awarding the Tech in Surgery-Certified (TS-C) designation to those who pass its exam and meet certain education and/or experience requirements.
- The TS-C certification must be renewed every five years through either continuing education or reexamination.
What Personal Requirements for Surgical Technician Jobs Should I Know About?
Surgical technologist requirements don't just come in the form of regulations or acronyms. If you want a successful and rewarding career as a surgical technologist, it's a good idea to understand how to be a surgical tech by demonstrating characteristics like:
- A caring, compassionate attitude
- Manual dexterity, particularly with your hands
- A love for order and details
- The ability to think quickly and anticipate the needs of someone else
How Do I Become a Surgical Technician?
When asking, "How do I become a surgical technician?" it is important to understand that the formal way of referring to this occupation is "surgical technologist." Beyond that small distinction, you should know that, depending on your individual circumstances, you have some options.
At minimum, you will need a high school diploma (or the equivalent) to get started, and it is a good idea to have taken (and done well in) classes such as biology, health, chemistry, and math.
Main Paths to Becoming a Surgical Tech
Options for beginning your pursuit of a career in surgical technology can include:
- Completing a post-secondary surgical technology program (the easiest option)
- Finding a hospital that runs an on-the-job surgical tech training program (usually for existing staff) and trying to get hired in an entry-level position so that you can apply
- Joining the military and training to become a surgical tech through a military-run program
Can You Tell Me The Most Common Way For Learning How to Become a Surgical Tech?
The best option for most people who want to know how to become a surgical technologist is to get a formal education from a school with a surgical tech program. In addition, you should consider the following points:
Picking a School
- When selecting a school, keep your future ambitions in mind. If you think you might want to pursue a more advanced degree later on, then it's wise to ask whether the credits you earn as part of your surgical technology program can count toward a higher degree.
- The clinical externship portion of your surgical tech education is very important. Many schools can place you in a hospital setting for your real-life training, which could give you the chance to scrub in on the widest variety of surgical cases possible. (Plus, hospitals sometimes hire the best and most eager surgical tech students from among those performing clinical externships at their facilities.)
After You Graduate
- As one of your first priorities, it's a good idea to get professionally certified. This will make you more marketable as you search for your first job.
- It can sometimes help to call the O.R. (operating room) departments of hospitals directly and ask to speak to the O.R. manager. Display a confident attitude and ask if there are any openings. State that you are a recent surgical tech graduate looking to break into the field. (Hospitals and other employers don't always advertise their job openings.)
- Be flexible. Many new surgical techs find great employment opportunities by being willing to relocate.
How Long is Surgical Tech School?
A frequent question of those considering a career in this field is "How long is surgical tech school?" The answer is fairly straightforward, but it does depend on the type of academic credential you want to graduate with.
So, how long does it take to become a surgical tech?
Surgical technology programs that award a certificate or diploma are generally designed to take anywhere from nine to 15 months to complete. Programs that offer associate's degrees usually last two years (24 months).
What is the Cost of Surgical Tech School?
The cost of surgical tech school can vary substantially depending on the type of post-secondary institution you attend and whether you wish to graduate with a certificate/diploma or an associate's degree. Total costs (including tuition and other fees) can range from about as little as $3,500 to $25,000 or more, depending on the institution.
Most schools, if you qualify, can assist you in getting financial aid, which can include student loans or grants from the federal government or private lenders. If you are an older worker, you might also be eligible in some states for financial assistance as part of a retraining program.
In addition, the Foundation for Surgical Technology awards scholarships to outstanding students who are members of the Association of Surgical Technologists (AST) and are pursuing their education in a CAAHEP-accredited surgical technology program.
What Should I Know About Surgical Tech Accreditation?
Many surgical technologist schools can put you on the path to becoming a surgical tech. Accreditation is one way to compare the programs they offer.
The top organizations for surgical technology program accreditation are:
- The Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)
- The Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES)
What are the Typical Surgical Technician Education Requirements?
Surgical technician education requirements are designed to provide students with a thorough foundation of skills and knowledge that prepares them for the thrills and challenges of working in an operating room. That's why the surgical technologist education requirements that are most widely supported have the goal of producing graduates with core know-how that includes:
- A practical knowledge of basic surgical technology concepts and the ability to put them into action
- Understanding how to prepare for surgical cases
- The ability to apply (and recognize the importance of) the principles of sterility in order to provide the best possible care to surgical patients
- The confidence and ability to position patients with ease
- The ability to work on all basic surgical cases in the role of a surgical technologist in the scrub role ("scrub tech")
- The ability to recognize all basic sets of surgical instruments
- A commitment to behave safely and responsibly
- The ability to interact and communicate effectively as part of an operating room team
What are the Typical Surgical Tech Course Requirements?
Many surgical technology programs follow the curriculum recommendations of the Association of Surgical Technologists (AST). In such programs, the surgical tech education requirements include a combination of classroom learning, hands-on instruction in a skill lab (which is also used for mock surgeries), and supervised clinical experience in a real-life operating room setting.
Surgical tech course requirements typically consist of subjects such as:
- Anatomy and physiology
- Medical terminology
- Surgical pharmacology
- Classification and healing of wounds
Patient Care and Operating Room Fundamentals
- General patient care
- Sterile technique and the principles of asepsis
- Safety standards
- Surgical instrumentation, supplies, and equipment
- Surgical procedures
- Postoperative considerations
- Communication and professionalism
- Ethical, moral, and legal issues
Because of the rapidly changing nature of healthcare technology, many surgical tech programs include additional courses in subjects like robotics, biomechanics, and computer science.
What is the Surgical Technician Job Outlook?
Employment prospects look good for anyone working as an experienced surgical technician. Job outlook is considered bright since employment of surgical technologists is expected to grow by 19 percent between the period from 2010 to 2020. **
Reasons for the increasing demand for surgical techs include the fact that the aging baby boomer generation will need more surgeries and the fact that a growing number of surgical procedures are now made possible by technological advances in areas such as fiber optics and laser technology.
The fastest job growth in the surgical technology sector is likely to be in physicians' offices and other outpatient care centers. Job prospects are also best for surgical techs who are certified and willing to relocate.
What Tips Can You Provide About Landing My First Surgical Tech Job?
As you prepare to go after your first surgical tech job, it can be beneficial to keep the following tips in mind:
- Some surgical techs work their way up to the position they want by first starting as a sterile processing and distribution (SPD) technician. Working in a department with a name such as SPD, Central Supply (CS), Central Processing (CP), or Central Processing and Decontamination (CPD) can be a great way to ingrain your knowledge of surgical instruments. Plus, some hospitals prefer hiring from within for new openings, which means you would be in a prime position to go after any new surgical technologist jobs.
- Sometimes, getting a surgical tech job is about who you know. That's why it is so beneficial—during your externships—to develop positive relationships with the people you are working for and who are teaching you, especially the surgeons. It can also help to spend some time volunteering for a hospital in the operating room or PACU (post-anesthesia care unit).
- Persistence pays off. If you can show confidence, communicate effectively, and answer questions well during interviews, then you are bound to land the kind of surgical tech position you really want.
What Options Exist for Advancement as a Surgical Technologist?
Experienced surgical technologists have options when it comes to mobility within their careers. So, how long does it take to be a surgical tech in an advanced role?
It all depends. Some surgical techs are able to start advancing in their careers after as little as two to five years of full-time experience.
With additional education and training, a surgical technologist can become a circulating technologist or a surgical first assistant. Surgical techs can also choose to specialize in a specific area of surgery such as neurosurgery, orthopedic surgery, or open-heart surgery.
After they've gained enough experience, some surgical technologists choose to work as traveling surgical techs by signing up with companies that hire scrubs to contract out to hospitals in a variety of locations on a short-term basis (usually three months to a year). In addition to what amounts to a competitive salary for surgical technology jobs, such companies typically pay for your temporary housing and utilities while you fill in for other surgical techs who are on sick leave or maternity leave.
Other options for experienced surgical techs can include:
- Working for a veterinary surgeon at an animal hospital
- Becoming a product representative for a medical company
- Assisting with medical product research and development
- Working in a managerial role
- Teaching surgical technology at a post-secondary institution
How Do I Get Started?
Surgical technology is a field that isn't going away anytime soon. In fact, it will only keep growing. The surgical tech job outlook is bright. So, if you want to get started, check out the surgical technologist schools in your area. Then request more information and get ready for a career that lets you make a real difference.