What Is a Surgical Technologist?

Why "Scrubs" Are Integral to the Success of a Surgical Team

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Surg Tech. Hard at work saving lives
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A surgical technologist is a health professional who is an integral part of a surgical team. The position requires around two years of training, which provides the technologist the tools and expertise needed to ensure that the operating room is safe, the equipment functions properly, and the surgical team has the hands-on assistance to complete an operation in a smooth and efficient manner.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there are just over 100,000 surgical technologists actively practicing in the United States. They are highly specialized professionals who only work in surgical or perioperative areas of a hospital.

Also Known As

  • Operating room technicians
  • Surgical technicians
  • OR tech
  • Surgical tech
  • Scrub
  • Scrub tech

Concentrations

The surgical technologist is typically involved in all perioperative phases of surgery. This the period in which a patient is wheeled into surgery and wheeled from the recovery room following surgery.

This includes the preoperative phase (before surgery), the intraoperative phase (during surgery), and the intraoperative phase (after surgery). Unlike the surgeon, the technologist generally plays a role in all of these phases. By practice, the surgical technologist is the first person to enter the operating room and usually the last one to leave.

Preoperative

Surgical technologists are trained in both sterile and aseptic techniques to ensure that the operating room is free from disease-causing microorganisms. They are responsible for preparing the operating room and ensuring all of the equipment needed for surgery—from monitors to sutures—is in its correct place, is fully accounted for, and is properly sterilized.

They also perform basic tasks such as checking the patient's medical charts and consent forms to ensure there are no mistakes or misunderstandings.

Prior to surgery, the surgical technologist is tasked with prepping the patient, including washing, shaving, and disinfecting the incision site. They may also assist in preparing medications and administering them to the patient.

Intraoperative

During surgery, surgical technologists are responsible for maintaining the sterility of the operating room but also serve as a “third hand” to the surgeon and surgeon’s assistant during the operation itself. This includes handling scalpels, forceps, sponges, sutures, and whatever else may be needed to perform the surgery.

After surgical equipment is used and handed back, the technologist must ensure that it is fully accounted for and that not missing by the end of surgery. The surgical technologist may also be asked to retract tissue during the operation so that the surgeon and surgeon's assistant have clearer access to the surgical site.

Postoperative

Once the surgery is completed, the surgical technologist may be tasked with suturing the incision and applying disinfected dressings to the skin.

After helping wheel the patient to the recovery room, the technologist would need to "tie up" everything in the operating room. This includes counting all of the instruments and supplies used to ensure that nothing is left behind in the patient. Any needles, gauzes, sutures, and tissue specimens would be properly disposed of, and the operating room would be fully cleaned and sterilized in preparation for the next surgery.

Procedural Expertise

Surgical technologists are trained to be exacting and fully versed in all facets of surgery. They must be able to anticipate the next move the surgeon is going to make so that the operation goes as smoothly and efficiently as possible. This demands extensive knowledge of hundreds of different surgical procedures and the steps and equipment needed to complete them.

In the United States, surgical technologists work under the supervision of a surgeon, surgeon's assistant, registered nurse (RN), other senior surgical personnel. Other members of the surgical team include an anesthesiologist, a circulator nurse (who oversees perioperative patient care). and occasionally a radiographer (who performs on-site imaging studies).

A surgical technologist must know how the equipment works, what they are used for, and how to identify faults so they can be attended to before surgery.

Surgical technologists are typically the "go-to people" who must think on their feet and find solutions should the unexpected occur.

Finally, surgical technologists must possess the knowledge and practical skills to ensure asepsis (the avoidance of bacteria and other microorganisms) during the entire perioperative phase. To this end, technologists must be fully versed in the standards and recommended practices developed by the Association of periOperative Registered Nurses (AORN).

Subspecialties

Although many surgical technologists are generalists, others choose to specialize in specific types of surgeries, including obstetrics and gynecology (OB/GYN), cardiovascular, orthopedic, neurology, reconstructive, urology, and ear/nose/throat (ENT), among others.

Specializing typically requires additional training but allows the technologist to broaden his or her skills in techniques such as microsurgery, organ transplantation, and surgical robotics.

Training and Certification

Surgical technologists typically obtain training from a community college, technical school, or military school with a surgical technology program. Programs range in length from nine to 15 months for a certificate to 24 months for an associate's degree. Most programs require a high school diploma for entry.

There are around 450 surgical technology programs accredited in the United States by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP).

As with most medical training programs, surgical technology programs consist of both classroom learning and hands-on clinical training. Class subjects include anatomy, physiology, microbiology, pharmacology, ethics, and medical terminology. Students also learn about specific surgical procedures, sterile/aseptic techniques, and perioperative patient care.

Certification is preferred by most employers. There are two different councils that certify surgical technologists:

  • Liaison Council for the Certification of the Surgical Technologists (LCCST), which awards the CST (Certified Surgical Technologist) designation
  • National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT), which awards the TS-C (Tech in Surgery, Certified) designation

You must attend a CAAHEP-accredited program and successfully pass the certification exam in order to be granted the designation and use it after your name.

With additional education and training, some surgical technologists will advance to the role of surgical first assistant. The surgical first assistant works directly with the surgeon and takes on additional responsibilities (including the management of other surgical technologists who may be part of the team).

Others will take on the role of a circulator who interviews patients before and after surgery and may also assist with anesthesia.

A Word From Verywell

Surgical technologists are highly skilled professionals who must possess certain qualities in order to succeed. They must be highly organized, proactive, conscientious, and stable enough to handle the fast-paced environment of the operating room. They must also have exceptional dexterity to handle numerous instruments in intricate ways.

Moreover, they need to keep up with ever-changing medical procedures and technologies to remain competitive in their field. This involves maintaining (or even exceeding) the necessary continuing education hours to maintain active certification.

Working as a surgical technologist requires standing for long periods of time. The average workweek is about 40 hours; however, nights, weekends, and on-call emergency shifts may be part of those hours. According to the BLS, around 70 percent of surgical technologists work in operating rooms of hospitals. Others are employed in outpatient surgery centers or dental clinics.

In 2017, the median average income for a surgical technologist in the United States was $46,130, with the highest 10 percent earning more than $67,000.

The employment outlook for surgical technologists is especially strong, with a projected annual growth rate of around 12 percent.

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