The best way to become a Certified Surgical Technologist (CST) is to earn a degree or certificate through a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES).
Accredited surgical technology programs make graduates more competitive in the job market by providing them with a solid medical background, thorough understanding of surgical procedures and the technical skills needed in an operating room. Programs may include the following courses:
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the majority of employers seek surgical technologists who have passed a national certification exam, such as the one administered by the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting.
This comprehensive certification exam, a multiple-choice test taken on a computer, is open to anyone who has earned a CAAHEP- or ABHES-accredited degree from an institution. It covers the medical knowledge and skills required of competent entry-level technologists, including specific techniques in perioperative care, intra-operative care, post-operative care and basic science.
A passing grade on this exam qualifies you as a Certified Surgical Technologist (CST).
Like the CST, this certification indicates knowledge in several science and medical topics, safety procedures and surgical skill areas. The National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT) offers this credential and tests for mastery medical terminology, infection control, antiseptic procedures and other key competencies.
Candidates can qualify to take this exam in one of three ways:
Those who pass the NCCT exam are designated as Tech in Surgery–Certified (TS-C).
After becoming a CST or TS-C, a certified surgical technician must keep her credential current. Mandatory renewal of CST certification involves the following:
Enrolling in continuing education classes
Re-taking the certification exam every four years
TS-C certification is renewed in the same manner every five years.
Dozens of schools around the country, from Florida to Idaho, offer accredited programs in surgical technology. The credential generally requires 12 to 24 months to complete.
To gain admission to a surgical technologist program, you’ll need a high school diploma or GED. Depending on the school, you may also need to complete some classes in advance, such as basic math, biology and English classes. Other schools may have fewer or no prerequisites; be sure to ask the college you’re considering.
Because you’ll be interning in a patient care setting, surgical tech schools will require you to undergo a confidential background check and health screening after you’ve enrolled.
The course of study for surgical technologists includes classroom instruction in the sciences, patient care, anatomy and surgical procedures. You’ll also get hands-on practice in clinical settings that prepare you to join a surgical team of doctors and registered nurses in an operating theater. As a student, you’ll get to see first-hand how surgery is performed, and learn how an operating team works together.
During your clinical internships, expect to assist in preparing the operating rooms prior to surgical procedures; sterilize the room both before and after procedures; and learn how to assist surgeons and nurses during actual operations.
Most programs will also include academic courses in communication, social sciences and quantitative reasoning. These skills provide a foundation for the technical prowess that you’ll gain in a surgical tech program.
A quality program will prepare you to sit for a national certification examination, such as the one offered by the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting.
To sit for that exam, you’ll need to earn a surgical tech credential offered by either of these two institutions:
Before you enroll in any surgical technology school, confirm that it is accredited by one of these two agencies.
When calculating the cost of school, be sure to include fees for books and supplies as well as tuition. Depending on the surgical tech program you choose, the tuition can range from $6500 for a one-year course to double that cost for longer programs. Expect to spend more if you enroll as an out-of-state student.
Once known as the “invisible profession,” CSTs have been depicted in movies and TV shows as just a pair of hands doling out instruments in response to a surgeon’s barked commands.
Although proper instrument handling is an important part of the job, CSTs do so much more than that. Working as an integral member of a surgical team, they set the stage for an operation and advocate for their patients’ safety and comfort.
Before an operation, whether it’s a liver transplant or a knee replacement, the CST prepares the sterile supplies and checks all equipment to see that it’s in proper working order. During an operation, it’s commonly the CST’s job to operate suction machines, sterilizers, lights and diagnostic equipment.
A surgical technologist is often the person who greets the patient when she arrives for surgery. Beyond checking charts and vital signs, the CST provides emotional support to an often anxious patient. Writing in The Surgical Technologist, CST Shondra McGill describes how she shows compassion during out-patient procedures by playing upbeat music, holding her patients’ hands and talking with them throughout the operation.
For more complex surgeries during which the patient is sedated, the CST positions them properly on the operating table, drapes the patient and prepares the incision site. The technologist takes the lead on maintaining a sterile field at all times, helping other team members into sterile gloves and gowns and monitoring them to be sure they follow aseptic technique.
The CST is usually the person who passes instruments, sponges and sutures during surgery. But she doesn’t just react to commands; a good CST will anticipate a surgeon’s needs, working efficiently to provide prompt access to sterile items.
During an operation, the surgical technologist might also connect drains and tubing; prepare specimens for analysis; hold retractors and instruments; and sponge or suction the operative site. Following surgery, they dress the patient’s wounds and prepare the operating room for the next patient.
Through 2026, the profession is anticipated to grow at a rate of 12% annually
Median Annual Salary
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts strong demand for Certified Surgical Technologists. Through 2026, the profession is anticipated to grow at a rate of 12 percent annually—much faster than average. The BLS reports the median pay for a surgical technologist as $45,160 per year.
Some CSTs advance in the field by completing additional education and training. For example, they commonly progress to the position of first surgical assistant, also known as surgical assistant. These professionals might specialize in specific branches of surgery, such as cardiothoracic, neurosurgery, orthopedic or vascular. Most first assistants work in hospitals, but others work directly for private physicians or surgical groups. Some are even self-employed.
The NBSTSA offers a national certification exam specifically for first surgical assistants. As of January 2017, any new applicant to sit for the Certified Surgical First Assistant (CSFA) exam must be a graduate of a Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs accredited program in surgical assisting.
A surgical technologist who earns NBSTSA certification officially becomes a certified first assistant (CFA). The National Surgical Assistant Association (NSAA) also offers a certified surgical assistant (CSA) credential, which is earned by passing a written, oral and practical certification exam.
If you thrive in a team setting that combines hands-on care, attention to detail and an appreciation for the medical field, surgical technology might be your next career move. The job prospects are bright, and the certification is do-able in just two years or less. Start searching for the program that’s right for you.
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