> Surgical Technologist > Surgical Tech- Duties, Salaries and Education Paths

Is Surgical Technology a Good Career Change?

By: CareerFactsheet editors- Updated: July 30, 2012

Surgical technologists work in hospitals, outpatient care centers, and other locations where surgical operations are performed. As part of their duties, surgical technologists prepare operating rooms, arrange surgical equipment, and provide assistance to doctors and nurses during operations. Surgical technologists are also known as surgical technicians or operating room technicians. Technologists can also provide research and other support to insurance companies and research firms, as well as teach at colleges and universities to train new technologists.

These health professionals must be detail oriented and pay close attention to their work in order to ensure sterile and safe conditions for patients and surgical teams. Technologists also work in potentially stressful working conditions, which required them to manage and respond well to stress. Surgical technologies work in operating rooms and work closely with patients, which can expose them to communicable diseases, disturbing sights, and odors. Technicians are required to respond effectively to these challenging conditions without compromising a patient’s quality of care.

A Comprehensive Look At Their Duties

Surgical technologists perform a range of duties before, during, and after surgeries.

  • Before a surgery takes place, a surgical technologist will perform a number of duties to ensure the operating room, patient, and surgical team are prepared, safe and sterile. They will ensure that the operating room is stocked with surgical instruments and equipment required for the surgery, as well as wash and sterilize instruments and equipment with germicides and sterilizers. Using the surgical team’s preference card, technologists will also gather and arrange instruments, equipment, and supplies in the operating room to specific requirements demanded by the surgeon and his team.

  • Surgical technologies also prepare patients for surgery. As part of their duties, technologists wash and disinfect incision sites, position patients on the operating table, and cover patients with sterile surgical drapes. Surgical technologies also assist in preparing surgeons and their assistants before surgery, including scrubbing arms and hands and assisting the surgical team to put on gloves and sterile surgical gowns and masks. Before an operation, a technologist will also count the sponges, needles, and instruments in the operating room.

  • During surgeries, surgical technologies maintain sterile fields. They also assist surgeons and surgeons’ assistants, including nurses, throughout a surgery. This may include handing instruments and supplies to surgical team members, in addition to holding retractors, cutting sutures, and performing any other duties that a surgeon might request. Technologists also monitor and assess operating room conditions throughout a surgery to ensure sterile and safe conditions for the patient and the surgical team.

  • After a surgery has concluded, surgical technologists will once again count sponges, needles, and instruments to ensure nothing was left inside the patient. They also clean and restock the operating room. Surgical technologist may also prepare and assist in applying dressings and bandages, and may be asked to handle or dispose laboratory specimens.

Surgical Technician Specializations

Second Assistants

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Surgical technologists can specialize in ‘sterile’ and ‘non-sterile’ work. Technologists typically begin their careers as a second assistant. As a second assistant, they are involved in sterilizing and cleaning the operating room, as well as surgical equipment and instruments. They are also involved in preparing patients for surgery and supporting surgical team members. Typically, second assistants do not assist with the surgery itself.

Circulating technologists
Surgical technologists may specialize in so-called ‘non-sterile’ work, or circulating. Circulating technologists are members of a surgical team that prepare patients and assist with anaesthesia. They are not involved in assisting with the patient during surgery, such as retracting or suturing. They also collect and open packages for sterile members of the surgical team, such as surgeons and nurses, and remove their contents during a surgery.

Specific Areas of Surgery
Technologists can specialize in specific areas of surgery. Examples of specialities include:

  • cardiothoracic surgery,
  • neurosurgery,
  • orthopaedic surgery, and many others.

First Assistants
Surgical technicians with advanced training can also specialize as first assistants. Upon completion of additional training and certification, first assistants can help surgeons and other members of the surgical team with retracting, suturing, sponging, and closing and treating wounds, including cauterizing bleeds during surgery.

Other Specializations
Other specializations include working in a hospital’s central supply departments, where surgical technologists manage a hospital’s surgical supplies. Some technologies may also specialize in research or teaching and training. They can be found working for insurance companies, sterile supply services, surgical equipment firms, research and development agencies and firms, and colleges and universities.

A Look at the Salary Potential of a Surgical Technician

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A surgical technologist earned on average $20.41 per hour or $42,460 per year in 2011, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. By comparison, the average annual salary for all occupations in the United States was $21.74 per hour or $45,230 per year, which is slightly higher than the average wage for surgical technologists. The average median wage for technologists was $19.69 or $40,950 annually in 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A technologist’s wage depends on where they work and their specialization. For example, technologists employed in outpatient care centers earn more than those working at hospitals. Similarly, technologists working in surgical settings involving children and youth, the elderly, or persons with disabilities, earn more than those working in general surgery hospitals.

What Are the Working Conditions Like?

Most surgical techs work in hospitals, and much of their time is spent in operating rooms before, during, and after surgeries. Technologists may also work in medical centers and offices where outpatient surgeries are performed, including offices of physicians and dentists. Most surgical technologists work full time, and may also work on call during nights, weekends, and holidays. Some shifts can last over eight hours. Working as surgical technologists can also be stressful, and technologists can be exposed to communicable diseases, as well as unpleasant sights and smells.

Education and Training Routes

Main Types of Surgical Technologist Programs
Many surgical techs complete formal training by obtaining a diploma, certificate or degree. Programs in surgical technology are available at vocational schools, community colleges, colleges, and universities. Programs are also offered through distance and online education.

How Long Will It Take?
Typically, programs last several months for certificate and diploma programs and up to two years for associate degree programs. Qualification can also be obtained through on-the-job training and work experience, although this is typically not desirable for employers looking to hire surgical technologists.

Coursework involved
Programs in surgical technology generally include a combination of coursework and clinical training. They provide the knowledge and skills necessary for working in an operating room setting, as well as the skills needed to work effectively as a member of a surgical team. Students learn about maintaining sterile operating rooms and equipment, effective critical thinking, and working with patients. Courses often include instruction in anatomy, biology, and medical and surgical terminology, and can also include physiology, microbiology, pathology, medical law and ethics, infection control, and surgical technology, techniques and procedures.

In addition to class-based courses, surgical technology programs tend to offer a practical component in a clinical setting. This clinical experience is essential to obtain hands-on training on how to sterilize equipment and instruments, how to work with patients and surgical team members, and how to perform the main duties of a surgical technologist. Clinical training often takes place towards the end of the program, when students have obtained a core understanding of surgical technology.

Surgical Technologist Certification

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Certification for surgical technicians is regulated by the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA) and the National Center for Competency Testing. Certification with the NBSTSA allows technologists to use the designation ‘Certified Surgical Technologist’, and certification through the National Center for Competency Testing allows them to use the title ‘Tech in Surgery-Certified’. To become certified with the NBSTSA or the National Center for Competency Testing, technologists must complete an accredited education program in surgical technology and pass a certification exam. Examinations administered by the NBSTSA include the Certified Surgical Technologist exam and the Certified Surgical First Assistant exam. Continuing education is required to maintain certification with the NBSTSA and the National Center for Competency Testing.

Certifying exams test knowledge related to pre-operative preparation, procedures during operations, and post-operative procedures. In addition to testing knowledge about using and sterilizing equipment, examinations test knowledge of appropriate ways to interact with the surgical team and how to effectively identify potential problems in the operating room, and potential solutions to those problems. Knowledge of general administrative duties is also tested, such as workplace emergency procedures during fires and other incidents, computer technology, and general human resources policies and topics. Questions also test knowledge of basic science, including questions related to anatomy, physiology, microbiology, and surgical pharmacology.

The National Healthcare Association (NHA) also provides certification in surgical technology through its Certified Operating Room and Surgical Technician (CORST) program. In order to be certified with the NHA, technologists must have at least one year of related work experience or complete an accredited education and training program in surgical technology, in addition to successfully passing an examination. Once certified with the NHA, surgical mtechnologists can use the title ‘Certified Operating Room Surgical Technician (CORST)’. Certification with the NHA must be renewed every two years through continuing education or completed another exam.

The Future Potential of the Surgical Technologist Career

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Many graduates of surgical technology programs find employment after graduating. Demand for surgical technologists has remained at or above the national average for all occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). According to the BLS, demand for technologists is expected to grow between 10% and 19% from 2010 to 2020. As the American population ages the need for surgery continues to increase, the demand for surgical technologists will remain high. Hospitals and outpatient care centers are expected to continue hiring surgical technologists in response to these changing demographics.

Advancement opportunities in the field of surgical technology are possible through specializing in one specific area of surgery. Examples include heart surgery, neurosurgery, and orthopaedic surgery. Advancement is also possible with additional training, which allows technologists to become first assistants. As a first assistant, surgical technologists are permitted to assist with surgical procedures.


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