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What is a Surgical Technologist?
The surgical technician is one of the most important individuals in the OR suite, aside from the patient and surgeon. Without their presence, the surgeon would find it much harder to do their job.
Even though surgical technicians aren’t as well-known in the hospital, their role means that operating rooms are set up, the correct instruments put in place and, after surgery is done, sterilized for the next operation. While they are prepping the surgical suite, the anesthesia technician and nurse bring the patient into the OR and finish getting them prepped with any monitoring equipment that is required.
During surgery itself, the surgical technician passes instruments to the surgeon, working as their assistant. They also keep the incision area open so the surgeon can see what they have to do. After surgery is over, but before the incision is closed, the surgical tech counts the needles, sponges, and other items used to make sure nothing is left within the patient that could cause problems such as infection.
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Steps to Becoming a Surgical Tech
Step 1: Prepare for Admission
Step 2: Earn Your Degree
Step 3: Find and Complete a Surgical Rotation (Internship)
Step 4: Take Certification Exam
Once you decide what your career is going to be, you’ll have several steps in front of you before you can achieve it. These include earning your degree and completing a training program.
Once you know what school you’ll attend, it’s time to enroll in classes, take your surgical rotation, then obtain your surgical technician’s certification so you can work in the field.
Step 1: Prepare for Admission
First, you’ll need to take your placement or entrance exams (ACT and SAT). These inform the college whether you will be a good academic fit. They may also require your official high school transcripts. If you are officially admitted, you may be required to make a tuition down payment as well.
If you are admitted to the surgical technician program, then it’s time for you to begin the enrollment process and complete the necessary courses for your degree.
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Step 2: Earn Your Degree
Now that you’ve been officially accepted as a student into the college of your choice, it’s time to register for your associate's degree in healthcare. You will be assigned to an academic advisor, who will guide your course selections.
You may find that a certain course isn’t the right one for you - either because of sequence, timing, or your ability to connect with your professor. Don’t be afraid to change to a different class. Your schedule may change, but as long as you get all of your classes completed, you can proceed forward without worry.
You should also be aware of any minimum GPA required by your school or program. Major courses especially are important to pass with high grades and you may be required to maintain a certain grade level in order to remain in and graduate from the program. This is something you can discuss with your advisor when you are setting up your schedule.
Step 3: Find and Complete a Surgical Rotation (Internship)
Just as nursing and medical students have to compete this step, so do you. This is your surgical rotation, where you will participate in two surgery areas: outpatient and general surgery. You may assist with orthopedic procedures, gastrointestinal surgeries, or cataract surgeries for your outpatient rotation.
In your general surgery rotation you may help with surgeries of the spleen, liver, pancreas, or small bowel. Or you may participate in a surgery of the stomach, neck, or breasts. All of these procedures will expose you to your expected duties and give you experience in carrying them out.
Step 4: Take Certification Exam
Your work is important and requires verification that you are prepared to take on your duties. Because of this, you will be required to take a national credentialing exam when you graduate, before you can be hired for any position in the field. If you don’t have this test and certification in your record, you won’t be able to be hired or work in your field.
The National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA) administers the Certified Surgical Technologies (CST) exam. Once you take and pass this exam, you will be officially recognized as a certified surgical technologist.
What Does a Surgical Technician Do?
Before every surgery to which you are assigned, you will prepare the operating room, putting together trays of instruments specific to each surgery and positioning them as specified. The way you carry out your work helps to reduce the incidence of mistakes in the operating room and infections in your patients.
During each surgery, you are one of the most important team members. You may monitor the patient during the surgery or move the patient into a position required for successful surgery. When the surgeon requires someone to hold a clamp and maintain pressure to mitigate blood loss, that may also be you.
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You need to be able to evaluate each surgery so you can think ahead and know ahead of time what the surgeon will require. Your critical thinking also extends to your preparation of the operating room and surgical trays beforehand.
After the surgery ends, you are responsible for counting each instrument, sponge, and any other item that was placed in the operating room. You want to have the same number of these items that you did before surgery, so the patient doesn’t suffer needless complications.
When you are preparing instrument trays, you are doing so in a way that ensures a sterile environment. Your knowledge of human anatomy and surgical procedures combine to allow each surgery to be done correctly.
Skills to Acquire
You need several skills that enable you to work successfully as a surgical technician. Some are obvious (reliability, for instance):
- Be reliable and dedicated:
Your employer needs to know they can rely on you. When you are scheduled to work, you will be there on time, if not a little earlier.
- Be able to work as a team:
You’ll be working with a team of surgeons, nurses, and other surgical staff. You’ll be taking directions from several people, so you need to be able to stay calm and clear-headed.
- Willing to learn:
Even after graduating from your surgical tech program, you’ll still be learning. Indeed, as every surgery is different, you’ll likely be learning something new almost every operation for your first year or so.
- High-level communication skills:
You’ll be given instructions that you need to act on immediately. You’ll also be stating your needs, and you need to do so in a way that’s easy understood.
- Be ready for surprises:
Every day will be different, and, without warning, you may be enmeshed in a change in your patient’s condition.
- Excellent dexterity:
You’ll be working in small spaces. You need to be able to make small, precise movements.
- Have a strong stomach:
You’ll see things that make other people sick. You need to be able to stay focused.
This is one profession that requires you to receive your education. Because you are going to be learning about human anatomy and how to function as a surgical technician in the operating room, an education in this field is mandatory.
However, you don’t necessarily have to earn a full two-year associate degree in healthcare, much less a bachelors. Instead, you can earn a training certificate and you’ll be able to receive a national certification in your state that allows you to work in this field.
You’ll be working right next to doctors and surgeons who are carrying out either medically necessary or elective surgeries on their patients. The program you choose allows you to use the most recent techniques as you prepare surgical instruments and equipment. You will be gowning and scrubbing up and assisting right next to the operating bed on which your patients are lying. As a part of this, you’ll be interacting with nervous patients and helping them to calm down.
While you won’t earn a four-year degree, you’ll eventually want to go through a postsecondary program that culminates in an associate’s degree.
Surgical Technician Career & Salary
Where Might You Work?
Even though you will soon be a surgical technician, your work location won’t be limited only to hospitals. Instead, depending on your career goals, you may also work in outpatient surgical centers and medical centers. Here, based on your performance and willingness to learn, you may be able to advance more quickly. In a hospital, you will be one of several surgical technicians, so you would have to work harder to rise above the pack.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) says you could work in a dental office, outpatient care center including ambulatory surgical centers, or in state, private, or local hospitals.
Dental offices are one of the largest employers of surgical technicians, at 4%. Outpatient care centers (including ambulatory surgical care centers) are also larger employers of surgical technicians, at 11%. Doctor’s offices also employ surgical technicians. They fall at the same level as outpatient care centers, 11%. Finally, state, private, and local hospitals are the largest employers of surgical technicians, at 71%.
Potential Career Paths
Your chosen career path may be as varied as the positions that are available. The years of experience you will be required to have will vary, based on the job level being advertised (entry-level to experienced).
For any surgical technician position for which you apply, you should have your state’s certification in hand. This will allow you to begin working immediately, rather than having to wait until you take your exam and receive your certificate.
Surgical Technician, Ambulatory Surgical Center:
A part- or full-time position working under the medical direction of a surgical team.
Employers may have multiple operating rooms. Focus may be on general surgery, gastro-intestinal, urology, and/or ophthalmology.
- Relevant focus experience
- Two years of relevant surgical experience
- Have your certification
- Possess excellent communication skills
- Ability to thrive in a fast-paced environment
- Be able to work in a team and independently
Certified Surgical Technician:
A part- or full-time position in the surgery department of a hospital. You will assist surgeons during invasive and operative procedures. Prepare operating suites; monitor PAR level of every surgical instrument and supply; clean and sterilize all surgical instruments; take part in departmental staff meetings and performance improvement activities.
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You may be required to work on-call as needed. Be able to work with inpatients and outpatients. You could obtain a position like this with only a high school diploma or equivalent. You’ll need to have a minimum of one year of work experience in the surgical suite. If you know more than one language, this will make you a better candidate.
This part- or full-time position will require that you have experience in the focus procedure type the facility offers. You will be working under pressure. Your work shifts may be during the day, Monday through Friday, on a regular schedule. Depending on patient demand, your shifts may be 12 hours long.
You will work under the supervision of a surgeon during invasive or non-invasive procedures. Your role is to ensure the operating room is sterile, safe, and that all equipment is in working order.
As a surgical technician, you will be exposed to high-pressure situations. Expect your co-workers and employers to ask for your thoughts and opinions regarding specific cases or situations.
You should know how to be constantly vigilant in the maintenance of the sterile equipment and how to assist the surgical team, as the primary scrub person to handle instruments, equipment, and supplies during surgical procedures. Finally, it may be mandatory for you to be able to obtain your Basic Life Support Certification (BLSC) within one month of employment.
Surgical Tech—Operating Rooms:
You will give technical assistance to the surgeon and surgical team by scrubbing, setting up, and maintaining a sterile field for all surgical procedures, assembling instruments and equipment, preparing medications to be used within the surgical field, and functioning as a member of the surgical team.
You must have completed an accredited surgical technologist program; be currently registered with the state as a surgical technician; have working knowledge of physiology and anatomy, pharmacology, and medical terminology; and an understanding of instrumentation and equipment. You’ll likely need to be available to take night and/or weekend calls when needed.
You will need to have good manual dexterity and grasping ability. Maintain a retracted position for up to an hour. Have a clear visual and auditory acuity, corrected or uncorrected. Be able to walk stand, sit, stretch, lift, and bend extensively.
Surgical Tech Salaries
|Certified Surgical Technologist (CST)||$34,000||$46,000||$64,000|
**Salary info provided by PayScale
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that employment of surgical technicians (technologists) is expected to grow 12% between 2016 and 2026, which is faster than the average for all other occupations in the U.S. Because newer advances in medical technology have made surgery safer, this means more surgeries are being done so that a variety of injuries and illnesses can be treated.
Contributing to the increase in employment for surgical technicians is the aging of the baby boomer population. This demographic may also be more willing to seek medical or surgical treatments as they try to improve their quality of life. If a surgical procedure can help them maintain a healthy, active lifestyle, they may be more willing to undergo needed surgery. Surgical technicians and technologists who have already completed an accredited program of education, plus a state certification, may enjoy the best job prospects.
Surgical technologists can anticipate a 12% increase in employment from 2016 to 2026; health technologists and technicians can expect a 14% increase. The total for all occupations is 7%.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Advancing From Here
According to PayScale, certified surgical technicians/technologists may be able to return to school and earn their R.N., where they can return to work in the operating room or work as a supervisor. They may also become operating room nurse managers, surgical assistants, surgical dental assistants, or oral/maxillofacial surgery assistants. You may only need on-the-job-training to become a surgical assistant.
Surgical technicians can specialize in a surgical discipline. This can give them additional professional opportunities. Finally, after you’ve worked as a surgical technician/technologist, you may be able to move up into administration, where you could manage several surgical teams.
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