With the complex, high-pressure nature of situations that may arise in an operating room, doctors and nurses rely on skilled assistants who can shoulder some of the less delicate duties and allow surgeons to better focus on the matter at hand. Surgical technicians are important components of the operating room team, working closely with anesthesiologists, surgeons and circulating nurses to ensure that everything goes according to plan.
What Does a Surgical Technician Do?
Also known as scrubs, surgical technologists or operating room technicians, surgical technicians have a whole host of duties to perform when helping to prepare the surgical environment:
- Setting up surgical instruments and equipment
- Arranging sterile drapes to cover patients
- Preparing sterile solutions
- Assembling any necessary sterile or non-sterile apparatus
- Washing, shaving and disinfecting incision sites
- Transporting patients to the operating room
- Observing and monitoring patient charts and vital signs
- Assisting the surgical team with sterile gowns and gloves
A surgical technician is also charged with passing sterile supplies and instruments to surgical assistants and surgeons. They also may assist with the less sensitive activities that take place during surgery, such as holding retractors, severing sutures around wounds and keeping track of needles, sponges and other instruments. Surgical technicians are called upon as well to help collect, confine, care for and dispose of laboratory specimens. Some help apply dressings to surgical incisions, run diagnostic equipment or operate sterilizers, lights or suction machines.
What Are the Steps to Becoming a Surgical Tech?
Nearly all surgical technician positions require an associate's degree, diploma or certificate. The programs that train students to become surgical technicians are offered by many community colleges, universities, hospitals, vocational schools and military institutions. Surgical technician training programs can last anywhere from 9 months to 2 years and may culminate in any of the necessary credentials previously mentioned.
An individual seeking certification as a surgical technician can expect to take courses in subjects including the following:
- Medical Terminology
- Human Anatomy and Physiology I and II
- Introduction to Surgical Technology
- Surgical Procedures I, II and III
- Surgical Tech Practicum I and II
This specialized coursework is often interspersed with general education core classes in communications, mathematics, natural sciences, world sciences and humanities. Programs usually provide both classroom education and supervised clinical training.
Professional certification is also an important step in the eyes of many potential employers. The National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA), formerly the Liaison Council on Certification for the Surgical Technologist (LCC-ST), awards professional certification to graduates who pass a nationally standardized examination after attending an educational program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP). While certification is voluntary, most employers do prefer candidates who have the designation. Once a Certified Surgical Technologist (CST), you must earn 60 hours of relevant continued education or retake and pass the certification exam at the end of a four-year period.
It's also possible to earn your certificate by completing a two-year on-the-job training program or acquiring seven years of work experience in the medical field and contacting the National Center for Competency Testing. Certification earned in this manner must be renewed every sixty months through either retesting or continuing education.
How You Can Stand Out as a Surgical Technician
Specializing in a single avenue of surgery is perhaps the surest way to be noticed and advance as a surgical technician. Some technicians choose to specialize in areas such as brain or open-heart surgery, gaining valuable experience while also helping to save lives. Successful surgical technicians can move on to manage central distribution houses for hospital supplies or take positions in peripheral health care industries that benefit from their particular training, such as insurance, sterile supply services and operating equipment sales and manufacturing.
Work as a surgical technician is rewarding and pays modestly well. Take a look at this breakdown of national average annual salary by percentile in the surgical technician field for 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):
- 10th percentile: $27,910
- 25th percentile: $33,090
- 50th percentile (median): $39,400
- 75th percentile: $47,310
- 90th percentile: $55,620
What's more, jobs for surgical technologists are expected to grow at a rate of 25 percent between 2008 and 2018, which outpaces the average growth rate for all occupations by more than double. The growth rate is expected to increase further as the US population gets older on average and a greater amount of surgeries becomes necessary.
Of course, a steady hand and a passion for the science of medicine both lend themselves well to the development of a top-notch surgical technician. Check with a few local educational institutions to see if the surgical technician programs they offer might work for you.
Resources for Surgical Technicians