Surgical Tech Training: What to Expect on the Road to the OR

illustration of surgical tech in operating room 

You’re curious about what goes on beyond the “red line”—the restricted areas of a hospital that lead to its operating rooms. Unless you’re unfortunate enough to experience major surgery while awake, it’s tough to get a glimpse of operating room (OR) happenings outside of a medical television show or during the few minutes before the anesthesia kicks in.

Whether you’re looking for a strong entry point into the growing healthcare field or drawn by the rush of assisting with surgical procedures, surgical technologists have rewarding jobs and the journey to become one can be just as exciting.

But if you’re considering becoming a surgical tech, you’ve likely got a few questions about what the training will entail and what to expect. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what you’ll see on your way to working in the OR.

4 Key components of surgical technologist training

Surgical technologist training covers a lot of ground, but it can be broken down into four primary focus areas:

1. Choosing a surgical tech program

There are several important factors to consider when picking a surgical technologist program. Affordability, admissions requirements and alumni outcomes are all worth considering—as well as the accreditation status of the program.

Programmatic accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) allows graduates of these programs to apply for the Certified Surgical Technologist (CST)® credential from National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA). While this credential isn’t the only option for surgical technologists, it may be required in some states.

Melissa Wehlage, a graduate from Rasmussen College’s Surgical Technologist program, says accreditation played a big role in her decision. “The programmatic accreditation was a big deal to me and a huge deciding factor.”

Another factor you may want to consider when choosing a program is how you’ll learn—will you be required to be in the classroom every day? Weekly? While it’s true that the work of a surgical tech is very hands-on, you may still be able to find programs that offer online learning options, particularly for General Education courses. Be sure to have a good handle on what your time and travel commitments will look like before enrolling in a program.

2. Surgical tech courses

Once you’ve chosen the best program for you, the next step is to complete your surgical technologist coursework. So what classes would you have to look forward to? Let’s take a closer look at a few of the surgical technologist courses found in Rasmussen College’s program:

  • Human Anatomy and Physiology I & II: In these courses you’ll study the entire structure and function of the human body both in the classroom and in the lab. Chante Yearby, surgical technology program coordinator at Rasmussen College, says these courses are absolutely critical for student success as you’ll need to know your way around the human body and possess the right vocabulary to be an effective team member in the surgical suite. “Medical terminology is the language we speak in the OR,” emphasizes Yearby.
  • Fundamentals of Surgical Technology: This class sets the stage for your surgical technologist training. Here you’ll learn the basics of maintaining a sterile environment, surgical procedures and important safety information like how to handle medications and the proper assembly and usage of surgical instruments.
  • Surgical Microbiology: One of the chief concerns of a surgical team (beyond completing the procedure) is to guard against infection. This course focuses on how microorganisms function and the biology behind infection control procedures.
  • Surgical Pharmacology: In this course, you’ll learn about the various ways anesthesia is administered, potential complications and interventions to take, and the ins and outs of common medications used during surgery.

There’s no doubt that becoming a surgical tech takes intensive training. While some people might have the misconception that surgical techs just pass instruments to surgeons, the reality is that this role is a lot more complex than what meets the eye. Yearby says there are hundreds of specialized instruments and likes to explain the role this way: Imagine a chef in a bustling professional kitchen asking you to pass the salt, but when you go to grab it you find a huge array of options—kosher salt, sea salt, Himalayan salt, black salt—which one do you choose? Knowing what’s cooking, even if you aren’t the head chef, would make you a lot better at making the right choice.

Surgeries are complex and present huge risks if even a seemingly small thing goes wrong—which is part of why these courses are meant to be a little intense.

“The more often you’re thrown into an uncomfortable situation, the better you’ll be at your job,” says Wehlage.

3. Surgical tech labs

Just sitting at your desk studying doesn’t truly prepare you for the intensity of working the surgical suite. That why surgical tech training includes extensive labs that accompany your courses. These labs help you practice what you’ve learned while also preparing you for externships. At Rasmussen College, you’ll complete the following labs alongside corresponding lecture time:

  • Human Anatomy and Physiology I & II
  • Fundamentals of Surgical Technology (surgery-specific)
  • Surgical Procedures I, II, III (surgery-specific)

In Rasmussen College’s surgery-specific labs, students begin by learning individual skills, like:

  • Opening and prepping supplies including specialized tools
  • Scrubbing and gowning procedures
  • Safe handling of sharp tools and blades

Once they learn individual skills, students practice stringing them together into a sequence that they’ll apply to mock surgeries, giving them a strong foundation to build on during their externships. But labs aren’t just about learning procedures and best practices. Yearby says she often tells her students, “When we do mock cases in the lab, I am not teaching you how to do a specific procedure. I am teaching you how to prioritize and manage your responsibilities within the potential flow of a procedure.”

Being a surgical tech is more than just having a specific set of skills, it’s about being able to truly focus on many things at once. Surgeries, even relatively short ones, require intense focus. Surgical techs are always aware of the sterility of the field, the locations of all the instruments, the patient’s vitals and the movements of everyone else in the room. Surgical tech labs are integral to developing this sustained focus and are a great way to gauge your fit for the field. “To be focused, you have to really like what you’re doing,” says Wehlage.

In a typical schedule, Rasmussen College’s labs run once a week for about four hours per week, allowing for extended work, studying and personal time on other days. Though Yearby notes that since the program is so challenging many students spend their time outside labs and class studying, the once-a-week labs allow students more flexibility in where and when they study. Whether you prefer to study at home, in a coffee shop, in the morning, at night or somewhere in between, you can complete your Rasmussen College classwork in a way that fits your life more easily.

4. Surgical tech externships

Once you’ve got the fundamentals down, it’s time to get some real-world exposure. Externships allow surgical tech students to give direct patient care, work as a part of the surgical team and practice their skills in a live setting. Similar to an internship or clinical rotation in other roles, surgical technologist externships get you in the field and can have a huge impact on your career and future employment.

As you might expect, most surgical tech externships are conducted at hospitals, with opportunities to work in a variety of departments including:

  • General surgery
  • Orthopedics
  • Gynecology
  • Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT)
  • Labor and delivery
  • Podiatry
  • Cardiovascular

Rasmussen College students must fulfill at least 500 externship hours between two sites. This extensive externship time means students will have over 100 surgeries under their belts when the time comes to start their job search.

Ready to start your surgical tech training?

Though there are many steps on the road to becoming a surgical technologist and finally getting a glimpse at life on the other side of the red line, Yearby speaks from experience when she says the effort is worth it.

“Personally speaking, surgical technology found me and changed my life,” Yearby says.

Yearby recalls that when she first stepped foot on a college campus, she had no idea what a surgical technologist was, but after observing the energy of a surgical tech classroom during a visit she was hooked. Fast-forward to today and Yearby is still going strong in a career dedicated to this crucial healthcare role.

“That was 18 years ago—now I am the one yelling out instructions and watching things happen, all with the shades wide open so that maybe one day someone like me will walk past those windows and set out to change their life,” she says.

Think you’re ready to give it a shot? Take the first step toward scrubbing in by visiting the Rasmussen College Surgical Technologist program page.

Certified Surgical Technologist is a registered trademark of the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting.

The Surgical Technologist AAS Program at the Brooklyn Park/Maple Grove, Moorhead, and St. Cloud, Minnesota campuses and the Romeoville/Joliet, Illinois campus is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP.org) upon the recommendation of the Accreditation Review Council on Education in Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (ARC/STSA). The Surgical Technologist AAS Program at the New Port Richey/West Pasco, Florida and Rockford, Illinois campuses is not currently accredited, but students are eligible to prepare and take the National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT) Tech in Surgery – Certified TS-C exam at no additional cost.

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Kirsten Slyter

Kirsten is a Content Writer at Collegis Education where she enjoys researching and writing on behalf of Rasmussen College. She understands the difference that education can make and hopes to inspire readers at every stage of their education journey.

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