What is a Surgical Technologist?

Career Information

Surgical technologist passing a cystotome needle for cataract surgery
A surgical technologist prepares equipment.. Huntstock / Getty Images

A surgical technologist assists surgeons, anesthesiologists, registered nurses, and other members of an operating room team. He or she maintains the operating room, sterilizes equipment and prepares patients for their procedures. A surgical technologist, who may also be called a surgical or operating room technician or a scrub tech, sterilizes equipment and hands surgeons instruments upon their request.

He or she is also responsible for ordering supplies and maintaining files and records of procedures.

Quick Facts

  • Surgical technologists earned a median annual salary of $43,350 in 2014.
  • This field employed close to 100,000 people in 2012.
  • Most jobs were in hospitals, but some were in outpatient surgery centers.
  • The job outlook for this occupation is excellent. Employment is expected to grow much faster than the average for all occupations through 2024. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics classifies it a "Bright Outlook" occupation.

How to Become a Surgical Technologist

To work in this field, you need an associate degree, diploma or certificate in surgical technology. Some vocational schools, colleges and hospitals offer this training that can last from several months to two years. Programs consist of a combination of classroom education and clinical training. The Association of Surgical Technologists (AST), a widely recognized professional association, believes the associate degree is the preferred level of entry into the profession.

You can become certified as a surgical technologist by first completing an educational program and then passing an exam. The National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA) and the National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT) both offer certification. The NBSTA requires completion of a surgical technology program that has been accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP).

You can search for an accredited surgical technology program on the CAAHEP website (CAAHEP Accredited Program Search). The NCCT requires that one completes a program approved by that organization.  Few states have laws regulating this occupation, but the Association of Surgical Technologists has been lobbying for licensure of surgical technologists.

What Soft Skills Do You Need to Succeed in This Career?

In addition to the hard skills you will acquire through formal training, you will also need the following soft skills to succeed in this field:

  • Active Listening: This ability allows you to understand instructions from surgeons and other members of the operating room team.
  • Attention to Detail: You need the capacity to notice even the smallest details, and you must be attentive to your work, often for extended periods of time.
  • Coordination: You must be able to collaborate with other members of your team.
  • Problem Solving: You will need to be able to identify and solve problems.
  • Critical Thinking: You must be able to weigh your options and choose the best one when you are trying to solve a problem or make a decision.

    The Truth About Being a Surgical Technologist

    • It is a physically demanding job. Expect to spend long hours on your feet. You will have to move patients and equipment.
    • Your work hours could include nights, weekends and holidays.
    • Shifts often last longer than eight hours.
    • Many people might find the operating room to be an unpleasant place. You could be exposed to communicable diseases and objectionable sights and smells there.

    The Difference Between a Surgical Technologist and a Surgical Assistant

    A surgical assistant is another member of the operating room team. While a surgical technologist's tasks are usually limited to preparing operating rooms and equipment, and handing instruments to surgeons, he or she provides hands-on assistance to a surgeon during an operation. A surgical assistant might help control a patient's bleeding, apply sutures and use suctioning equipment. Some surgical technologists become surgical assistants after receiving supplemental on-the-job training. To become a surgical assistant, one can also complete a formal training program.

    What Will Employers Expect From You?

    Here are some requirements from actual job announcements found on Indeed.com:

    • "Ability to work effectively in a fast paced environment"
    • "Displays professional, responsible and accountable attitude and behavior"
    • "Ability to accurately maintain written records"
    • "Able to multi-task and work well in a team environment"
    • "Must be organized and work efficiently under pressure"
    • "Ability to perform work that requires frequent standing, bending, reaching, squatting, kneeling, moving, lifting of patients and/or equipment up to 50 pounds"

    Is This Occupation a Good Fit for You?

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    Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 (visited January 11, 2016).
    Employment and Training Administration, U.S. Department of Labor, O*NET Online (visited January 11, 2016).

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