Surgical Tech vs. Scrub Nurse: Salary, Responsibilities, & More

If you’re thinking about pursuing a medical profession, you may be considering becoming a surgical tech or scrub nurse. Both jobs will allow you to work in the operating room and assist with surgeries, but they have important differences. 

Surgical techs, sometimes referred to as scrub techs, usually earn their surgical technologist certification and are responsible for handling surgical instruments and helping keep everything in the operating room sterile. 

Scrub nurses, on the other hand, have to be licensed as registered nurses and are responsible for documentation, monitoring patient vital signs, and keeping the operating room safe for the patient and staff members. 

This guide goes over key differences between surgical techs and scrub nurses to help you decide which is better for you, including salary, responsibilities, education requirements, and more.

Surgical Tech vs. Scrub Nurse Overview

Though surgical techs and scrub nurses are both medical professionals who help in the operating room, there are key differences (and some similarities) between the two. 

Both jobs require training in healthcare and an advanced knowledge of surgical instruments and sterile techniques. However, each requires a different level of education, has different responsibilities, and earns a different salary. 

Here’s a quick overview of each:

Surgical Tech Scrub Nurse
Description Organizes & sterilizes surgical instruments & hands them to the surgeon during operations Assesses the patient, manages advanced equipment, & is responsible for documenting all events during surgery
Average Salary $56,350 per year $81,220 per year
Proj Job Growth 5% growth between 2022 and 2032 6% growth between 2022 and 2032
Job Location Hospital operating rooms, outpatient centers, dentists offices, offices of physicians, administrative offices Hospital operating rooms, insurance companies, cardiac catheterization labs, outpatient centers, offices of physicians, administrative offices
Typical Hours Monday through Friday from 7 am to 5 pm, with weekend and night shift on-call requirements Monday through Friday from 7 am to 5 pm, with weekend and night shift on-call requirements
Training Required Training program and certification Associate degree in nursing and pass licensing exam

Surgical Tech Overview

Surgical technologists have meaningful careers, earn a decent salary, and have many opportunities for growth and learning. 

Some people choose to have a career as a surgical tech, while others become surgical techs as a way to get experience for more advanced healthcare careers

Surgical tech responsibilities include

  • Setting up surgical equipment
  • Monitoring and troubleshooting equipment during surgery
  • Sterilizing instruments between cases
  • Organizing surgical tools for each surgery
  • Preparing the patient for surgery
  • Handing the surgeon instruments during the operation
  • Cleaning and sanitizing the operating room in between cases. 

In some states, surgical techs are required to earn a certification and register with the state before they can work in an operating room or assist with procedures.  

Most surgical technologists work in hospitals, but there are jobs available in physician’s and dentist’s offices, outpatient centers, and some administrative healthcare areas.

Most surgical techs work weekday hours, either 8, 10, or 12-hour shifts. They usually also have to be on call for a few weekends and night shifts if a patient needs emergency surgery. 

They often arrive earlier than the rest of the surgical team, spending the morning gathering and preparing supplies for the day and staying after the last case is completed to clean up and sterilize equipment. 

Scrub Nurse Overview

Scrub nurses, like surgical techs, spend their days working in the operating room, handling surgical instruments, assisting the surgeon, and keeping the patient safe. 

Scrub nurses must earn at least an associate degree and have to pass the NCLEX, a licensing examination for registered nurses. 

Scrub nurses in the operating room are responsible for: 

  • Managing advanced surgical equipment
  • Placing and managing intravenous catheters
  • Ensuring everyone remains sterile in the operating area
  • Monitoring patient vital signs
  • Assisting the surgeon 
  • Handling surgical instruments
  • Adjusting patient position
  • Monitoring and recording patient blood loss and urine output
  • Preparing the patient for surgery
  • Ensuring that there is a surgical “time out” before the procedure starts
  • Verifying patient information including correct name, surgical procedure, surgical site, and allergies
  • Ensuring that informed consent is given by the patient before surgery starts

Scrub nurses usually work in hospitals and may work 8, 10, or 12-hour shifts. Hospital scrub nurses may have to work nights, weekends, and holidays if a patient needs emergency surgery. Scrub nurses who work outside the hospital may work in physician offices or as part of insurance company teams. 

Scrub nurses may also share responsibilities with the operating room circulating nurse, who manages the operating room schedule, ensures that necessary supplies are stocked, and monitors patients in the post-anesthesia-care unit while they recover from surgery. 

Key Similarities Between Surgical Techs & Scrub Nurses

Because they have similar responsibilities and work environments, many people have a hard time telling the difference between the two. There are many similarities between surgical techs and scrub nurses. These include: 

  • Work environment. Both scrub techs and scrub nurses usually work inside the operating room of a hospital. Both can also work in physicians' offices and outpatient centers.
  • Working hours. Almost every surgery needs at least one surgical tech and one scrub nurse. Because of this, both usually work the same schedule—weekday shifts with occasional weekend and night shifts for emergency surgeries. 
  • Infection control. One of the most important parts of working in the operating room is the ability to maintain perfect sterile technique. Both jobs require an extensive knowledge of infection control and an ability to pay attention and maintain a sterile environment for patients. 
  • Job outlook. Both jobs have a similar job outlook, with scrub tech jobs expected to increase by 5% between 2022 and 2032 and scrub nurse jobs expected to increase by 6% in the same period. 
  • Basic surgical knowledge. While the education requirements are different, surgical techs and scrub nurses must both have an advanced understanding of surgical instruments, medical terminology, patient positioning for different procedures, and infection control. 

Key Differences Between Surgical Techs & Scrub Nurses

While they share a work environment and have some overlapping responsibilities, there are important differences between surgical techs and scrub nurses. These include: 

  • Salary. Scrub nurses earn an average salary of $81,220 per year, while surgical technologists earn an average salary of $56,350 per year. 
  • Education requirements. Some states require that surgical techs complete an accredited training course and pass a certification exam. Surgical techs can often earn a certification in about one year. Scrub nurses must complete a nursing degree program, which can last anywhere from two to four years. In addition, nursing school is much harder than surgical tech school.
  • Licensing requirements. Some states require that surgical techs register with the state. In contrast, all states require nurses to pass a licensing exam and earn their license to be a registered nurse before they can begin working. 
  • Scope of practice. Scrub nurses have a larger scope of practice than surgical techs. Unlike scrub techs, nurses can assess a patient, give medications, document surgical procedures, and place IV lines. 

Surgical Tech & Scrub Nurse Salary & Job Growth Comparison

On average, scrub nurses earn $24,870 more per year than surgical technologists. Of course, this can change based on years of experience, extra certifications, and job location.

In the United States, scrub nurses earn an average salary of $81,220 per year, while surgical technologists earn an average salary of $56,350 per year.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, both surgical techs and scrub nurses can expect better-than-average growth opportunities between 2022 and 2023, with surgical tech jobs expected to increase by 5% and registered nursing jobs expected to increase by 6%.  

Since scrub nurses require more school but earn a higher salary, many people choose to work as scrub techs while in school to become registered nurses. Both types of jobs also provide great learning experiences for aspiring physicians and surgeons. 

Alternatively, career surgical technologists and registered nurses often transition to education jobs when they are ready to leave the operating room. 

Education & Certification Requirements for Surgical Techs & Scrub Nurses

Surgical techs usually earn their certification before getting a job in the operating room. Even in states that do not require certification, most employers and healthcare organizations prefer to hire certified technologists. 

Surgical techs have two different options for certification: CST and TS-C. To earn one of these certifications, candidates must complete a training program and pass a certification exam. 

Training programs can be completed online, through a technical college, or at a university and include both classroom learning and hands-on experience. Surgical tech training programs can take anywhere from 4 months to 2 years depending on the type of program you choose.

Scrub nurses are always required to earn at least an associate degree and most organizations now require a bachelor's degree in nursing. After completing a 2 to 4-year degree program, nurses have to pass the NCLEX-RN examination to become licensed registered nurses. Nurses cannot work anywhere in the United States without being licensed. 

Comparing a Day in the Life for Surgical Techs & Scrub Nurses

While the education requirements and salary are quite different for surgical techs and scrub nurses, a lot of their day-to-day tasks and responsibilities are similar. 

Surgical techs often arrive before the rest of the surgical team, and spend the morning preparing and organizing surgical instruments. They may have to memorize different preferences for each surgeon and must know how to set up the room for all types of surgeries. 

During surgery, scrub techs often stand next to the surgeon, handing them instruments and providing suction. After surgery, the scrub tech will clean the operating room and sterilize the instruments. 

The scrub nurse may also arrive before the surgeon, but their focus is usually on the patient rather than the operating room equipment. Depending on the facility, the operating room nurse may be responsible for assessing the patient, asking them questions about their history and allergies, and installing an intravenous catheter before surgery begins.

In addition, the nurse must ensure that the patient understands what will happen during surgery and obtains a signature for informed consent. 

Once in the operating room, the nurse can manage surgical instruments and equipment, monitor the patient's vital signs, and ensure that everyone maintains sterile technique. 

Some scrub nurses will remain with the patient postoperatively until they are awake, breathing on their own, and stable.

FAQs About a Scrub Nurse vs. Surgical Tech Career

Are surgical techs and scrub nurses the same?

Surgical techs and scrub nurses are not the same. Scrub nurses typically have more advanced degrees and a larger scope of practice than surgical techs. 

Do surgical techs or scrub nurses make more?

On average, scrub nurses earn $24,870 more per year than surgical technologists. Scrub nurses earn an average salary of $81,220 per year, while surgical technologists earn an average salary of $56,350 per year.

How long does it take to become a surgical tech vs a scrub nurse?

In states that do not require certification, you may be able to start working as a surgical tech right after high school graduation. Most people who choose to earn a certification can complete their training and pass their exam in 4 months to 2 years. Completing a nursing program typically takes longer, about 2 to 4 years. 

Is it harder to become a surgical tech or scrub nurse?

Because of the stricter education and licensing requirements, it is more difficult to become a scrub nurse than it is to become a surgical tech. 

Is a surgical tech or scrub nurse higher up?

Surgical techs and scrub nurses work together on a team, and neither one is the boss of the other. Scrub nurses do have a larger scope of practice than surgical techs, and can perform more advanced tasks and procedures. 

>> Read More: Surgical Tech vs. Surgical Assistant

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