Surgical Tech Career and Education 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. Surgical technology is one of the most crucial roles in all of healthcare.
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
- Sometimes also called a "surgical technician," "operating room technician," "scrub," or "scrub tech"
Depending on their experience and specific roles, surgical technicians 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.
Generally speaking, there are three main roles:
- Scrub tech
- Circulating surgical technologist
- Second assisting surgical technologist
Each role corresponds with a different set of duties, which sometimes overlap.
Scrub Tech Duties Include:
- Checking operating room supplies and setting up surgical tables, trays, instruments, equipment, medications, solutions, and anything else necessary for a given operation
- Passing surgical instruments and supplies to the surgeon
- Preparing sterile dressings
- Cleaning and preparing surgical instruments for sterilization
Circulating Surgical Technologist Duties Include:
- More patient interaction
- Transferring the patient to the operating room and assisting with placing him or her on the operating room table
- Assisting the anesthesia provider
- 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
- Keeping accurate written records
- Constantly assessing the patient's condition and surgical team's progress
- Properly caring for surgically removed specimens that must be sent for laboratory testing
Second Assisting Surgical Technologist Duties Include:
- Holding retractors or instruments as directed by the surgeon
- Sponging or suctioning areas of the open surgical site
- Applying an electrically heated instrument to clamps used to stop bleeding
- Applying dressings to closed wounds
- Most of the same duties as a scrub tech
Benefits of this Career
- 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.
- Stability—Experienced technologists generally have pretty stable job security due to high demand for their services. In fact, the 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 pay varies, most salaries provide a good living, especially as experience is gained.
Requirements and Certification
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 those who are certified.
In order to work as a surgical technician in certain states, you will need to meet their requirements. Here is how things break down in those states:
- Indiana, South Carolina, and Tennessee all require professional certification from the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA).
- Texas requires the completion of an accredited surgical technology program and professional certification from either the NBSTSA or the National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT).
- Idaho requires either certification from the NBSTSA or successful completion, at minimum, of a one-year program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP).
- 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.
How to Become a Surgical Tech
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. The easiest option for getting into the career field after high school is completing a post-secondary program. Once this has been completed, you can assess which, if any, certifications are required by your state.
Choosing 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 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 students from among those performing clinical externships at their facilities.)
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)
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).
The cost of a surgical tech program 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. The best way to get solid numbers regarding tuition is to contact the schools you are interested in and ask the admissions representatives.
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. This article provides detailed information on financial aid options.
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 program.
Many programs follow the curriculum recommendations of the Association of Surgical Technologists (AST). In such programs, the 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.
Surgeons often must work quickly. So the best surgical technologists are able to anticipate their needs, and always be ready with the next instrument. Your goal is to make much of your job second nature. The less you have to stop and think, the faster you can respond and provide what a surgeon needs, as it is requested. By staying on top of the procedures for multiple kinds of surgeries, you can ingrain the knowledge that lets you shine in the operating room. Develop this habit of focused study and practice. It will serve you well in school, and throughout your career.
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.
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. Hospitals and other employers don't always advertise their job openings, so it's a good idea to check in.
- Be flexible. Many new surgical techs find great employment opportunities by being willing to relocate.
Employment prospects look good and job outlook is considered bright since employment of surgical technologists is expected to grow by 12 percent between the period from 2016 to 2026. *
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 procedures are now made possible by technological advances in areas such as fiber optics and laser technology.
The fastest job growth in this 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.
The typical salary can vary significantly depending on geographic location, work setting, experience, role on the surgical team, and certification status.
According to national estimates from May 2018, the typical salary of a surgical technologist looked like this: **
- The median salary for surgical tech jobs was $47,300.
- The highest-earning 10 percent made $69,170 or more.
Pay can also come 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 techs who specialize in a particular area and find employment within physicians' offices or other outpatient care centers.
Most surgical technologists work in hospitals, with operating rooms being the most common environment. However, they can also be found in delivery rooms.
Other work settings include:
- Outpatient clinics (for physicians and dentists)
- Ambulatory surgical centers (places that perform same-day surgeries)
- Special mobile surgical teams (such as those focused on organ transplants)
- Private physician practices
Landing Your First Surgical Tech Job
As you prepare to go after your first job in your new career, 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.
- 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).
Experienced techs have options when it comes to mobility within their careers. Some 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. They can also choose to specialize in a specific area of surgery such as orthopedic, open-heart, or neurosurgery.
After they've gained enough experience, some choose to work as traveling surgical techsby 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, such companies typically pay for your temporary housing and utilities.
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 at a post-secondary institution
* Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, web site visited January 2, 2018.
** Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, web site visited April 18, 2019.
The Occupational Information Network (O*NET), web site visited December 1, 2017.
Association of Surgical Technologists (AST), web site visited February 19, 2020.
National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA), web site visited February 8, 2018.
Commission on Accreditation of Health Education Programs (CAAHEP), web site visited December 1, 2017.
Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES), web site visited December 1, 2017.
National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT), web site visited December 1, 2017.