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Can I Become a Surgical Technician Online?

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Can You or Can’t You Become a Surgical Tech Online?

If you’re looking to join a medical field with a job growth forecast that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics cites as “fast as average,” you might want to consider a surgical technologist program. Also known by titles such as surgical technicians and operating room assistants, these professionals play a critical role within the healthcare industry. They work alongside surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists, and other operating room (OR) staff to perform important duties before, during, and after surgery.

Quick Answer: No.

With online options for education becoming increasingly popular, many wonder if they can learn to become a surgical tech solely from their own computer. But these professionals are required to complete in-person training. Students just starting out will need to attend classes on campus and participate in supervised clinical experience. If the flexibility of online programs is what you’re after, you might be able to find physical courses that take place in the evening or on weekends. 

However, surgical tech programs online do exist under special circumstances. If you’ve already completed an accredited certificate or diploma program and currently hold certification as a surgical technologist (CST), you can advance to an associate degree entirely online. If your previous program was unaccredited or you received training on the job, other programs can help you earn your associate’s and become eligible to take the CST exam.

Why Aren’t There Online Surgical Tech Programs?

From sterilizing equipment to preparing patients for surgery, the duties of a surgical tech are incredibly hands-on. For this reason, online courses won’t prepare you to properly or safely perform the day-to-day responsibilities.

Is On-the-Job Training an Option?

While surgical techs typically need a certificate or associate degree, some employers may offer on-the-job training to those with high school diplomas or GEDs. However, the more common path is typically to earn your Certified Surgical Technologist credential, from which you’ll need to graduate from an accredited program.

Why Accreditation Matters

Accreditation is important. It confirms that your program meets the highest level of education standards set out for the field. The school you choose should be approved by either the Commission of Allied Health Education Programs or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools.

Completing an accredited program is also a requirement for anyone looking to become a Certified Surgical Technologist. Regulated by the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA), the CST demonstrates your knowledge and commitment to quality care. The American College of Surgeons supports the certification of all surgical technologists and highly recommends that employers consider certification status when hiring.

What’s more, though certification isn’t required nationwide, there are some regulations in place or in consideration in some states. As of 2021, the following states have passed laws relating to education, certification or the registration of surgical techs: Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Washington. Other states are currently proposing legislation that would make certification mandatory—also making accreditation essential.

What Surgical Techs Do

Surgical techs provide a number of important services within medical facilities. These might include:

  • Sterilizing, testing, and organizing instruments
  • Setting up the operating room
  • Preparing patients for surgery
  • Transporting patients to the OR
  • Passing instruments to surgeons and nurses
  • Handling patient specimens
  • Cleaning and restocking the OR after surgery

Surgical Technologist vs Surgical Technician

In most cases, the terms surgical technologist and surgical technician are used interchangeably. It usually comes down to the preference of the medical facility where you work. You’ll likely see educational programs with both titles, and either should prepare you to pursue the same kinds of jobs. 

Another term you may hear is surgical assistant, which is slightly different than a technologist. While assistants might perform many of the same duties as technologists, they have additional responsibilities when it comes to treating patients. They might help the medical team with more hands-on duties such as suturing, suctioning, or stopping a patient’s bleeding.

Surgical Tech Program Requirements

All surgical tech programs fall into 1 of 3 categories: certificate, diploma, or associate degree. To enter a program, you’ll need to have a high school diploma or GED. You may need to undergo a background check and, since you’re working in the healthcare field, provide documentation of all necessary immunizations. Many programs will also require you to have CPR certification.

What you’ll study

In a surgical tech program, you’ll learn the basics of anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, microbiology, professional ethics, and medical terminology. Some of the areas of study may include:

Subjects you’ll study

  • Safety of patients during surgery
  • Sterilization techniques
  • Prevention and control of infection
  • Proper handling of equipment, drugs, and specimens
  • Preparation of the operating rooms

Along with classroom and laboratory work, you’ll gain clinical experience that’ll prepare you to work along other medical staff in the field. Many programs can be completed in around 18 months, during which time you might have the chance to participate in 100 or more surgical cases.

The CST Exam

With your accredited certificate, diploma, or associate’s degree, your next step should be applying to take the Certified Surgical Technologist exam. Though not required, holding this certification will greatly increase your chance of employment.

The exam consists of 175 questions, 150 of which are scored. The others are used solely for the purpose of statistical analysis. A passing score is considered around 70%. To earn this score, you’ll need to have knowledge in 3 key areas:

  • Perioperative care (preoperative preparation, intraoperative procedures, postoperative procedures)
  • Ancillary duties (administrative and personnel, equipment sterilization and maintenance)
  • Basic science (anatomy and physiology, microbiology, surgical pharmacology)

Certification renewal

Once you have your certification, you’ll be required to renew it every few years. As of 2019, CSTs must renew every four years by providing proof that they’ve completed 60 credits of continuing education or by retaking the exam. Beginning in 2020, renewal will be every two years and the continuing education requirement will be cut down to 30.

Finding a Job as a Surgical Technologist

Surgical technologists can work in several different settings. While around 70% work in hospitals, you might also find employment in medical clinics, outpatient surgery centers, and doctors’ and dentists’ offices.

Surgical tech salary

There are more than 109,000 surgical technologists employed across the United States, says the BLS. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2022 salary data, the median salary for these roles is $55,960 per year. Your level of experience, certification, employer, and state where you work will influence what you can expect to make and conditions in your area may vary. Top paying states for surgical techs include California, Alaska, Nevada, D.C. and Minnesota.