What Do Surgical Techs Do? Duties & Responsibilities

Surgical techs assist with surgeries by ensuring everything is sterile, keeping track of surgical instruments, and helping with pre and post-operative patient care. 

Also called scrub techs, these healthcare workers most often work in hospitals but can also be found in outpatient centers and clinics. 

This guide goes over what surgical techs do, including responsibilities and duties, where they work, average salary, and more.

What is a Surgical Tech?

A surgical tech—sometimes called a scrub tech—typically works in an operating room assisting a surgeon. They prepare the operating room for surgery, set up the sterile field to avoid infection or contamination, hand the surgeon instruments during surgery, and help with positioning the patient for surgery. 

What Does a Surgical Tech Do?

Surgical techs usually stay with the patient before, during, and after an operation. They have to pay close attention to the details of the case and often have to memorize the preferences of each surgeon they work with. 

Before an Operation

Before an operation, the surgical tech will prepare the operating room for surgery. Each surgeon will require different instruments for different types of surgeries, and the surgical tech must know which instruments to have available and where they need to be placed. 

In addition, the scrub tech must maintain perfect sterile technique, ensuring that no equipment that comes in contact with the patient is contaminated. 

A surgical tech will also participate in what is known as a  “time-out” before each procedure. The time out is when the entire surgical team takes a moment to review the patient's information, their allergies, the procedure they need, and whether or not safety equipment is available. 

The surgical tech has a responsibility to speak up if they have any concerns about the safety of a procedure or the preparedness of a team. 

During an Operation

After a patient is brought to the operating room, the anesthesiologist will sedate the patient, putting them in a deep sleep (if required for the procedure).

Once the patient is asleep, the scrub tech will help position the patient correctly for surgery. After the initial positioning, the surgical tech may have to reposition the patient occasionally to prevent pressure sores. 

The surgical tech usually stands right next to the surgeon during the operation. They must know where each instrument is stored on the sterile table so they can hand it to the surgeon as soon as he or she needs it. 

The surgical tech may also have to hold body tissues or organs in the correct position, hold suction, or adjust lights throughout the surgical case. 

>> Read More: Surgical Tech vs. Scrub Nurse

After an Operation

After an operation, a scrub tech is responsible for making sure that every towel, needle, piece of gauze, and surgical instrument is accounted for. There cannot be any foreign items left inside the patient when it’s time to close. 

The surgical tech will also clean and sterilize the instruments to get them ready for the next case. 

>> Read More: Surgical Tech Job Description Template

Where Do Surgical Techs Work?

While most surgical techs work inside operating rooms of hospitals, there are many different places where surgical techs can work. 

All of these patients require the surgical tech to have a good understanding of surgical instruments and medical terminology while being able to tolerate long days of being at work and standing or walking around. 

Hospitals

71% of all surgical techs work in some kind of hospital. Surgical techs in hospitals work in operating rooms and can specialize in many different types of surgeries. 

These surgical techs likely have to be on call during weekends, nights, and holidays, with regularly scheduled hours during the week. Surgical techs often have to stay late for surgeries that take longer than expected or happen after normal business hours. 

In addition to employing the most surgical techs, hospitals also pay the highest salaries to their surgical techs. 

Some hospitals looking for short-term help often hire travel surgical techs, which earn more than those in permanent positions.

Outpatient Surgical Centers

Outpatient surgical centers take care of patients who need slightly less invasive procedures. They may do a lot of orthopedic and laparoscopic surgeries. 

Physician Offices

While it is less common, surgical technologists can work in physician’s offices. Surgical techs in these offices help with less invasive procedures such as colonoscopies, fracture reductions, and other bedside procedures that only require local anesthesia. 

Surgical Tech Specializations

Most surgical techs specialize and work in one type of operating room setting. Since each type of surgery and surgeon requires different instruments, setups, and skill sets, it makes more sense for surgical technicians to specialize in specific areas.

Some of the areas of specialization include:

  • Thoracic surgery. Thoracic surgeries include heart and lung surgeries such as valve replacement, coronary artery bypass grafts, lung resections, and even heart and lung transplants. These surgeries typically only take place in larger hospitals. 
  • Orthopedic surgery. Orthopedic surgeries deal with bones, muscles, and tendons. An orthopedic surgical tech may assist with knee and hip replacements, tendon repairs, or complex bone repairs. Orthopedic surgery may require a lot of physical strength to hold limbs in the correct position for repair. 
  • Neurosurgery. Neurosurgery involves operating on the brain, spinal cord, and other nervous tissue. Robotics are often used in neurosurgery and the surgical assistant will have to learn about the basic operation of some of these tools. 
  • Obstetrics. Obstetrics includes delivering babies and performing other women’s health surgeries such as hysterectomies or tubal ligations. These surgical techs are most likely to work scheduled night, weekend, and holiday shifts. 
  • General surgery. These surgeries might include abdominal surgery such as appendectomies or removing abdominal tumors. These types of surgical techs will see the most variety in their day-to-day jobs of any other surgical tech specialty. 
  • Cosmetic surgery. Surgical techs working in cosmetic surgery centers can assist with rhinoplasty (nose jobs), breast augmentation, liposuction, or even botox injections.

>> Read More: Surgical Tech vs. Surgical Assistant

Skills Required to Be a Surgical Tech

While being a surgical tech is considered an entry-level healthcare job, there are some skills you will need to develop before working as a surgical tech, including:

  • Organization. Surgical techs have to be extremely organized. Knowing where a specific surgical instrument is may mean the difference between life and death for a patient getting surgery.
  • Focus. Some surgeries can last for hours at a time, with very few breaks or time to rest. Surgical techs must be able to maintain focus throughout the entire surgical case.
  • Dexterity. While surgeons are the only ones cutting or stitching, surgical techs may still have to hold body tissues, delicate surgical tools, and flashlights. Surgical techs should have good dexterity in both hands. 
  • Calm in an emergency. Operating rooms can sometimes be stressful and tense. Surgical techs should be able to remain calm when things are not going well. 
  • Attention to detail. Surgical tools often have similar appearances, and surgical techs need to be aware of the small differences between them all. 
  • Medical terminology. Besides knowing the name and use of all surgical instruments, surgical techs should have a basic understanding of medical terminology. 
  • Clear communication. Working with surgeons in the operating rooms or doctors at the bedside can be intimidating. Surgical techs should be very clear in their communication and not be afraid to speak up if they have a concern or notice a problem. 

Education, Certification, & Licensing Requirements for Surgical Techs

The education requirements for scrub techs vary based on state. 

However, regardless of the requirements in your state, you are more likely to have a successful surgical tech career if you go through some kind of training before you start applying for different jobs. 

Here is a breakdown of requirements for scrub techs:

Education Requirements

There are several different places to train as a surgical technologist. Programs can last anywhere from 4 to 24 months and include online programs, technical schools, and colleges/universities.

  • Online programs are often the least expensive option and can be completed the most quickly (4 to 12 months). 
  • Technical colleges are another more affordable option and usually take about 1 year to complete. 
  • Colleges and universities are more expensive and typically last 2 years. 

The benefit of choosing a private college or university is that it usually results in earning an associate degree, although a degree is not required to take a surgical tech certification exam. 

Certification Requirements

While not every state requires surgical techs to earn their certification, most employers prefer to hire certified surgical technicians. The two most common certification options include the Certified Surgical Technologist (CST) offered by the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA) and the Tech in Surgery - Certified (TS-C)  offered by the National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT). 

States that require surgical tech certification include:

  • Connecticut
  • Idaho
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Massachusetts
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Washington
  • Virginia

Licensing Requirements

No states require surgical techs to be licensed, but some do require registration. 

There is no universal organization for registering as a surgical tech, you simply have to look up your state to find out where to apply. Usually, a state health department will have the information you need. 

States that require surgical techs to register include: 

  • Arkansas
  • Colorado
  • District of Colombia
  • Illinois
  • North Dakota
  • Washington
  • Virginia

>> Read More: How to Become a Surgical Tech

Surgical Tech Salaries & Job Outlook

Surgical techs earn a good wage, especially when you consider their education requirements. 

The average salary for a surgical tech is $56,3590 per year or $27.09 per hour, with the bottom 10% earning $35,130 and the top 10% earning $78,560. 

The job outlook for surgical techs is good, with an expected growth of 5% between 2022 and 2023. 

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