Surgical Technologist Career

What is a Surgical Technologist?

A surgical technologist is a critical member of the surgical team whose primary responsibility is to assist other medical staff during surgical procedures. Though the manner in which surgical technologists (also known as surgical techs) assist doctors, nurses, and other operating room personnel varies, ultimately, they act like the glue that holds the team together.

Not only are surgical techs responsible for preparing the operating room, but they might also tasked with preparing patients for surgery. Additionally, surgical techs help maintain a clean and orderly operating room during the procedure. In other words, surgical techs are “jacks of all trades” whose role in successful medical procedures is invaluable.

What is a Certified Surgical Technologist?

A certified surgical technologist performs many of the same tasks and functions as a regular surgical technologist as described in the previous section. And though certification is not required in many employment settings, there are a number of benefits of becoming a certified surgical technologist.

First, being certified indicates to employers that you have an extra level of education. This signals to hospitals, clinics, and other potential employers that you have expanded knowledge and skills that could make you an even greater asset in the surgical environment.

Second, given that eligibility for certification requires that you first graduate from an accredited surgical tech program, it’s a means of demonstrating to potential employers that you’ve successfully completed the most rigorous program of study and that you have the tools needed to complete the duties of a surgical technologist in an effective manner.

Lastly, in some situations, having certification could result in a higher hourly or annual wage. Again, because certification requires specific educational and testing benchmarks to be met, certified surgical technologists are usually in higher demand, and might be able to command a higher salary.

What Does a Surgical Technologist Do?

The job duties of a surgical technologist are most easily described by breaking them down into three phases – preoperative, operative, and postoperative.

In the preoperative phase, surgical technologists focus on preparing the operating room for the procedure. This involves ensuring that the environment is clean and sterile, and that all the required tools for the procedure are clean and organized.

For example, before a procedure is done, a surgical technologist receives a list of the tools and supplies that will be required for the operation. Further, surgical technologists are responsible for arranging the needed tools and machines in a way that is conducive to the surgeon being right or left handed.

Additionally, the surgical technologist might help nurses and other staff members prepare the patient for surgery. This might include helping to move the patient onto the operating table, helping to clean the area of the body that is to be operated upon, and put sterile drapes in place. What’s more, surgical technologists are often asked to verify that the right patient is in the operating room and double-check the plan for the procedure before surgery begins.

During the operation, surgical technologists are primarily responsible for assisting the surgeon by providing him or her with the requested or needed tools. This goes far beyond simply handing a scalpel to the surgeon, however. Instead, surgical technologists must not only know the name of hundreds of instruments, but they must also be able to quickly visually identify those instruments in order to provide them to the surgeon in quick order.

Surgical technologists are also responsible for providing hands-on assistance during the procedure. For example, they might be tasked with using a retractor to hold the incision open such that the surgeon has a better view of the surgical site. Additionally, once the procedure is done, the surgical technologist does a count of every sponge, needle, instrument, and other materials used during the procedure to ensure that everything is accounted for and that nothing has been left inside the patient by accident.

In the postoperative phase, surgical technologists provide assistance in closing incisions and bandaging the surgical site. They will often help move the patient out of the room, and once that has been done, they are responsible for cleaning the operating environment. For example, they collect the instruments used during the procedure and take them to be cleaned and sterilized for use in a future procedure.

What is the Work Environment for Surgical Technologists?

Primarily, surgical techs work inside operating rooms. As noted above, their work primarily involves prepping the room for surgery and providing assistance to doctors and nurses during surgical procedures. Surgical techs often work outside the operating room, though, particularly in patient rooms where they are usually responsible, at least in part, for preparing the patient for surgery.

Though most surgical techs work in hospitals, some work in other environments. For example, surgical techs might find employment in outpatient clinics where patients are not required to stay for recovery after a procedure is done. This is common in a number of areas of medicine, from dermatology to plastic surgery to orthopedics. In outpatient situations, surgical techs often perform the same functions as they do in a hospital, but in an environment that’s much more like a doctor’s office setting.

Why Do We Need Surgical Technologists?

Surgical technologists provide a critical role in operating environments because it is their primary duty to ensure that the operating room is perfectly clean and organized for the procedure. In that regard, they are quite literally involved in a life or death situation because if they don’t provide the correct instruments and don’t properly sterilize them, infection and disease could be transferred from one patient to another.

Likewise, surgical technologists play a crucial role during the operation in keeping the procedure on track. As described above, they’re not only responsible for handing the appropriate instrument to the surgeon when required, but they also provide hands-on assistance to the surgeon during the procedure. Again, they are part of the team that quite literally has the patient’s life in their hands.

From an organizational standpoint, surgical technologists are extremely important because they take much of the bulk of planning and organization of a procedure off the plate of the surgeon, lead nurse, and other team members that have many, many other tasks to do themselves. If the responsibilities of preparing the instruments and operating room, prepping the patient, cleaning the operating room, and so forth fell to the surgeon, for example, there could be a greater likelihood of missing an important detail. In that regard, compartmentalizing these tasks to the surgical technologist helps things run much more smoothly.

What Do You Learn in a Surgical Technologist Degree Program?

Surgical technologist degree programs revolve around helping students develop the requisite knowledge and skills needed to perform at the highest level in a medical environment. This typically includes coursework in:

  • Anatomy – Students learn about various systems and structures in the human body, including muscular and vascular systems, the circulatory system, and organs like the lungs and the heart.
  • Physiology – Closely related to anatomy, studies in physiology focus more on the functions of the body’s systems as opposed to their structures. For example, students would examine how the heart carries out its duties within the cardiovascular system.
  • Microbiology – Coursework in microbiology involves the study of various microorganisms, how they’re structured, how they function and grow, and how to control them as well.
  • Epidemiology – Students acquire the requisite knowledge to understand how, where, and why diseases are transferred and distributed.
  • Patient care – Though their primary function is in preparing the surgical environment for the procedure, surgical technologists are required to learn the essentials of providing care to patients, specifically, procedures for prepping patients for surgery, making patients comfortable and safe, and assisting with attending to patient needs immediately after surgery.
  • Surgical procedures – Students learn how to assist surgeons, nurses, and other staff members in the operating environment. For example, students acquire hands-on experience in handing the proper instruments to the surgeon when the instrument is requested.
  • Medical instruments – Students must memorize hundreds of medical instruments and be able to identify them quickly in order to provide the surgeon with the necessary tools required to complete the surgical task.
  • Medical equipment – Surgical technologists must understand how to setup and work medical equipment like ventilators, suction devices, vital sign monitors, and so forth.
  • Sterilization techniques – Hands-on training in appropriate sterilization procedures enable students to help maintain a clean surgical environment and protect against the spread of infection and disease.
  • Pharmacology – Pharmacology is the study of drugs and their effect on the human body. Coursework in this field is necessary for surgical techs such that they understand when patients are reacting to anesthesia or medications in ways that might endanger their health or safety.

What are the Requirements to Become a Surgical Technologist?

Educational Requirements

Surgical technology programs usually last between 1-2 years, depending on the institution that offers the credential. Most often, graduation from these programs leads to a diploma, though in some cases graduates might be conferred an associate’s degree. Various institutions offer these programs, from vocational schools to community colleges to universities. Some hospitals even offer surgical technologist programs. Typically, admission to these programs requires students to have a high school diploma or GED.

The course of study for a surgical technology credential is focused on medical-based studies like pharmacology, anatomy, physiology, medical instruments, and medical procedures. If a student chooses to pursue an associate’s degree, further study in general education (i.e., math, science, humanities, language arts, and the like) will be required.

Regardless of the type of program a student chooses, the aim of any surgical technologist program is to prepare students for the fast-paced environment of working in an operating room. Not only do these programs focus student learning on practical and technical matters like learning the names of medical instruments, but students are also trained to develop the personal skills and traits needed to work in a high-stress job, like remaining calm under pressure, attention to detail, communication skills, and organizational skills.

Surgical Technologist Certification Requirements

As noted earlier, certification as a surgical technologist is available and is often preferable for workers in this field. Certification is not required in all situations, though some employers might require surgical technologists to either be certified upon hire or have the ability to be certified within a certain timeframe after being hired.

The process of becoming a certified surgical technologist is fairly straightforward.

First, a student must graduate from a surgical technologist program that is accredited by one of two accrediting bodies – the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools  (ABHES) or the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP).

Second, students must provide the examination agent – the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting – with proper documentation that proves that they graduated. This includes one of the following: transcripts, a copy of the diploma, and a notarized letter from the director of the program. Applicants for certification that were trained in the military are also eligible, provided that they have documentation in the form of a transcript, a copy of the graduation certificate, or a copy of the DD214 form that indicates the location of the military base where the training occurred.

The final step in becoming certified is to take the certification test, which is a computer-based, multiple-choice exam that covers relevant medical topics, including basic medical knowledge, understanding of medical procedures, and techniques required to carry out preoperative, operative, and postoperative duties. A passing score on the examination is required to be eligible for certification.

What Skills are Needed to be a Surgical Technologist?

Working as a surgical technologist requires a vast array of hard and soft skills, as well as personal qualities in order to be successful. Though this is not a complete list of necessary skills, some of the most important include:

  • CPR – Surgical technologists must be well versed in medical techniques like cardiopulmonary resuscitation in the event that a patient codes during a procedure.
  • Asepsis Procedures – It is critical for workers in this field to understand how disease is spread and the procedures they must complete to create an aseptic environment in the operating room.
  • Medical Terminology – Surgical technologists must have an excellent medical vocabulary and strong working knowledge of common medical terms, as well as medical terms that pertain to specific surgical procedures.
  • Clinical Skills – Not only do surgical technologists need to have excellent bedside manner, but they must also possess the skills needed to properly prepare operating environments, maintain an organized operating environment, and clean and sterilize the operating environment post-surgery.
  • Hand-Eye Coordination – Workers must be adept at working well with their hands and have dexterity in their arms, hands, and fingers in order to pick up and hand instruments to the surgeon in a safe manner.
  • Physical Endurance – This job is very physically demanding with much time spent on one’s feet, in a position of being bent over a patient, and moving heavy equipment.
  • Organizational Skills – Since surgical technologists are responsible for organizing the operating theater before surgery, it is imperative that they have strong organizational skills.
  • Teamwork – Being able to work well with others in a fast-paced and high-stress environment is necessary for success in this career.
  • Communication Skills – Surgical technologists must not only be able to speak clearly and communicate their needs to other members of the surgical team, but they must also have excellent listening skills to ensure they understand what other members of the team need as well.
  • Strong Stomach – Though having a strong stomach might not be viewed as a typical skill, given that this career requires workers to be involved in messy surgical procedures, being able to maintain a calm demeanor without getting squeamish at the sight of blood is certainly necessary.

How Much Does a Surgical Technologist Make a Year?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of May 2016, workers in this field can expect to earn an annual average salary of $45,160. The highest paid surgical techs earn closer to $64,800 per year while the lowest 10 percent of earners make just under $32,000 per year, on average.

This disparity in wages is due to several factors, most obviously of which is the number of years of experience and education level that a worker has. Recent college graduates, for example, can expect to earn a lower wage than someone that has 10 years of experience on the job.

How Much Does a Surgical Technologist Make an Hour?

The median hourly wage for surgical techs, as of May 2016, is $21.71. However, much like one’s yearly wages depend on various factors, so too does one’s hourly wages. For example, surgical techs that work in specialty hospitals (i.e., a children’s hospital) might expect to earn more than average, at about $23.71 per hour. Conversely, workers in doctor’s offices or outpatient clinics might earn slightly less than average, or about $21.43 per hour.

What is the Job Outlook for Surgical Technologists?

The job outlook for surgical technologists isn’t as robust as other careers in the medical field. However, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects solid growth in this line of work, with 12 percent growth through 2026.

Part of the reason for the growth of jobs in this sector is that improved surgical technologies are making more types of procedures possible and safer as well. With more illnesses and injuries now treatable, it stands to reason that surgical techs would be in strong demand. Likewise, with more and more surgeries being done on an outpatient basis, there are more facilities that require the services of surgical techs than ever before.

What are the Advancement Opportunities for Surgical Technologists?

Surgical technologists have the benefit of various advancement opportunities being available to them. Most commonly, surgical techs advance through the ranks in their profession by obtaining certification via the process outlined earlier. Additionally, advancement opportunities might exist for becoming a more senior surgical tech by virtue of continued education and experience.

Some surgical technologists use their knowledge and experience to shift into other medical-related fields. For example, working as a surgical tech is excellent preparation for a career as a registered nurse. Though additional schooling is required to become a nurse, the practical experience one gets on the job as a surgical technologist is likely to prove beneficial when studying to become a nurse.

Still other surgical techs find their way into completely different lines of work. For example, someone that has worked in the field for a long time and no longer wants to be part of the operating theater might move into a teaching capacity. Colleges and universities might find a lot of value in the education and training that surgical techs have for a position teaching science and medical-related courses like anatomy, pharmacology, and medical terminology.

What Professions are Similar to Surgical Technology?

Licensed Practical NurseLicensed practical nurses (LPN) provide direct care to patients in hospitals, clinics, rehabilitation centers, and other medical facilities. They are traditionally responsible for basic tasks like monitoring vital signs, assisting patients with activities of daily living, and recording their activities in the patient’s health record. LPNs work under the direct supervision of a registered nurse and/or physician.

Nursing AssistantNursing assistants, or nursing aides, provide essential care to patients in a variety of healthcare settings, from hospitals to nursing homes to outpatient treatment centers. Their duties typically involve cleaning and bathing patients, assisting patients in using the restroom, transferring patients from a bed to a wheelchair, and serving food to patients that cannot feed themselves.

Dental AssistantDental assistants prep the work area for dental work to be done and also prepare the patient for the procedure. Additionally, dental assistants might take X-rays, sterilize equipment, and hand the dentist the required tools as he or she performs the procedure.

Medical assistant – A medical assistant works in both a clerical and a clinical capacity, usually in a doctor’s office or hospital setting. Clerical tasks might involve making appointments, taking payments for services rendered, and filing paperwork. Clinical tasks can range from taking a patient’s vital signs to assisting doctors with patient examinations to administering medication as directed by the attending physician.

Medical Laboratory TechnologistMedical laboratory technologists work in a lab setting where they perform tests on human samples of blood, urine, tissue, and so forth. Med techs use advanced technologies to undertake testing, and based on their findings, they write reports, discuss the results of testing with physicians, and enter data into the patient’s medical records.

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