What Is a Surgical Technologist? Job Description & Career Growth

Learn about your duties and responsibilities as a surgical technologist.

masked tech prepares vital stats machine for surgery

The Basics

  • What you’ll do: Also called operating room technicians, surgical technologists assist in surgical operations. You’ll prepare operating rooms for surgery; sterilize and supply equipment; prepare patients for surgery, such as washing incision cites; help surgeons and nurses during surgery by passing them instruments and other sterile supplies.
  • Where you’ll work: Hospitals, physicians’ offices, outpatient care centers, dentists’ offices
  • Degree you’ll need: Postsecondary certificate or associate’s degree
  • Average annual salary: $50,110*

Job Environment

Most surgical technologists work as members of a health care team alongside physicians and surgeons, registered nurses and other workers in a hospital. They all wear scrubs while in the operating room, in addition to masks and other preventative shields. As a surgical technologist, you’ll be on your feet, and you may be exposed to unpleasant sights, smells and materials.

In addition to helping prepare for and carry out surgeries, you may also prepare, care for and dispose of specimens taken for lab analysis. With patients, you may apply dressings and help ease them into recovery rooms.

Life in the operating room (OR) can be hectic and demanding, with life-threatening emergencies often occurring despite hours of careful planning and prep. As a key member of the team, the surgical technologist must anticipate the needs of the patient and the surgeon to ensure that each operation goes as smoothly as possible.

Here are the tasks a surgical technologist must perform and be prepared for with every surgery:

Preoperative: Sterile Hands

The surgical technologist is the first person to enter the OR before surgery. During this preoperative phase, the surgical technologist adheres closely to the following routine:

  • Carefully dons their operating room attire, including scrubs
  • Begins to prepare and sterilize the room
  • Gathers all of the equipment and surgical tools that the surgery requires
  • Sterilizes, counts, and carefully arranges them

The most important part of this preoperative phase is creating and maintaining the OR’s sterile environment. Sterile fields can be compromised in a variety of ways, the most common of which is by introducing moisture. To prevent this, the surgical technologist is responsible for arranging dry drapes around the operating table and keeping all surfaces in a sterile condition.

Intraoperative: The Third Hand

During the intraoperative phase of the surgery, surgical technologists are still responsible for maintaining the sterility of the OR, but they also effectively become a “third hand” to the surgeon and surgeon’s assistant during the procedure and perform the following tasks:

  • Help prepare medications and administer them to the patient
  • Assist in retracting tissues from the patient
  • Passes the surgical tools to the surgeon and surgical assistant during the operation

At any time during an operation, if a tool is missing or contaminated, the delay or resulting infection could cost a patient his or her life. That is why surgical technologists must be diligent and thorough at all times.

Postoperative: Tying Things Up

As the operation concludes, surgical techs are responsible for the following:

  • Counting all the tools and instruments used during surgery to ensure nothing is left behind in a patient
  • Suture the incision and apply disinfected dressings to the area
  • Dispose of items such as needles and gauze
  • Maintain OR’s sterile field until patient is in recovery ward

Thinking-On-Your-Feet: Cell Phones in the OR

While surgical techs aren’t expected to work miracles, they must be able to think quickly on their feet in emergency situations. During a recent hospital blackout and emergency generator failure, one quick-thinking surgical tech, with the help of the patient’s family member, rounded up enough cell phones to illuminate the OR while surgeons completed an emergency appendectomy.

Career Advancement

Certification can help a surgical technologist in finding the right position. You can earn various types of certification in classroom, online, and prep programs, such as:

As advancements in technology have made surgery safer, and as the aging population requires care, surgery technologists will be ensured steady work. Prospects are best for those who’ve completed an accredited education program and who maintain their professional certification.

With experience and additional education, surgical technologists can advance to become surgical assistants, where they will have more responsibility and command higher salaries. Surgical technologists also occasionally advance to other healthcare occupations, such as physician assistants or registered nurses.

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2019 Occupational Employment Statistics; Surgical Technologists.

*The salary information listed is based on a national average, unless noted. Actual salaries may vary greatly based on specialization within the field, location, years of experience and a variety of other factors. National long-term projections of employment growth may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions, and do not guarantee actual job growth.

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