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What is a Surgical Technologist? Your Simple Guide to This Hands-On Healthcare Career

What is a surgical technologist

Drama and chaos govern Hollywood emergency rooms as medical personnel rush patients into surgery and frantic families observe with faces full of desperate anticipation. You feel your heart rate rise as each moment passes—even though you’re seated comfortably on your living room couch.

Though these hectic emergencies are sometimes the reality of a career in surgery, many operations are planned and thoroughly prepared for by members of the surgical team. A surgeon may be the star of the show in the operating room, but there are multiple professionals working alongside them who play a role just as crucial in the outcome.

These medical specialists are called surgical technologists. Their involvement before, during and after any kind of operation is vital to every patient’s health. So what is a surgical technologist, and what does this career involve?

We interviewed a professional in the field and collected government data to give you a closer look at this healthcare career. Read on to discover if you’re ready to pursue this important profession.

What does a surgical technologist do?

You’ve probably figured out that surgical technologists have something to do with surgery, but what do they actually do in their day-to-day work? We went straight to the source for the answer, thanks to Deb Christiansen, surgical technologist at Avera McKennan Hospital.

A surgical technologist’s main duties are to prepare and maintain a sterile environment for surgeries, to provide the surgeon with necessary tools during the operation and to assist the surgeon in performing surgical procedures. Surgical technologists have the first interactions with patients and set the tone for surgery.

“There is such a wide span of what you can expect to do each day. I have done everything from helping with ear tubes and inserting catheters to actually catching babies while assisting with deliveries,” Christiansen says.

Here are a few other tasks that are part of this career, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):

  • Prepare patients for surgery
  • Transport patients to operating and recovery rooms
  • Support surgeons and nurses by providing tools and suturing wounds
  • Observe and report patients’ vital signs
  • Organize documentation of surgical procedures
  • Utilize medical tools such as internal staplers, surgical saws and drills
  • Study patients’ medical history

While these technical skills can be acquired in a surgical technology program, soft skills are also vital in this career.

“I make an effort to interact with the families before and after the procedures,” Christiansen explains. “This does a lot to build trust and a calming environment for what is often a stressful situation.”

Where and when do surgical technologists work?

Wondering what it could look like to walk into work as a surgical technologist on a daily basis? Surgical technologists have a flexible career when it comes to location and schedule.

Work setting

When it comes to location, 70 percent of surgical technologists work in a hospital, according to the BLS. The remaining 30 percent work in outpatient care centers. Hospitals offer a variety of specialties, such as:

  • Labor and delivery: Assist with caesarean sections and vaginal births
  • Urology: Support surgeries dealing with the bladder, kidneys and urinary tract
  • Cardiology: Assist in surgeries related to heart bypass and transplant
  • Neurology: Support surgeries dealing with the brain and spinal cord

Work schedule

Surgical technologists are typically hired as full-time employees in a healthcare facility. Depending on the place of employment, your hours and shifts will vary. As noted above, a majority of surgical techs are employed in hospitals. For these positions, your shifts may fluctuate on a weekly basis, meaning you'll need to be somewhat flexible. You may be on call during nights, weekends and holidays, and some shifts may last longer than eight hours. 

Surgical techs who work in outpatient care centers or in physicians offices will likely have a more predictable weekly work schedule.

What’s the job outlook for surgical technologists?

You don’t want to pursue a new career only to discover no one is hiring. Check out these statistics to boost your confidence in the growth of surgical technologist careers.

As medical technology advances exponentially, and insurance coverage is available to increasing amounts of our population, the demand for surgical technologists is also rising. Surgical technology careers are expected to grow at the faster-than-average rate of 12 percent through 2026, according to the BLS. There were nearly 108,000 surgical technologists employed in the United States in 2016, and the BLS predicts there will be an additional 12,600 job openings through 2024.

How much education do surgical technologists need?

Maybe you’re thinking that a surgical technologist career sounds great so far, but what about education? How can you fit the classes required into your already busy schedule, especially if you can’t be a full-time student? Take a look at some of your options.

Surgical technologists typically require an associate’s degree, according to the BLS. Certification isn’t required, but it may be helpful in finding a job. Anatomy, biology, medical terminology and pharmacology are common focus areas of a Surgical Technologist program.

Earning a degree may sound daunting, but it doesn’t have to be time consuming. In fact, some surgical technologist programs can be completed in as few as 21 months.* That’s right—you can become qualified to begin working in the field in less than two years.

Interested in joining the OR team?

What is a surgical technologist? These medical professionals may not experience all the drama of a Hollywood TV show, but the support they provide surgeons and patients is still a vital part of each surgery.

“I would encourage anyone who is considering this career,” says Christiansen. “The most rewarding part is seeing the outcome of each individual procedure. It is in witnessing the happy faces on patients and family members as they experience the results of a successful operation.”

Are you seriously considering joining the operating room team as a surgical technologist? Find out more about the benefits in our article, "6 Reasons Becoming a Surgical Tech is Worth It."

*Completion time is dependent on transfer credits accepted and courses completed each term.

Emily Hayden

Emily is a freelance writer for Collegis Education who writes student-focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen College. Her excitement about research and writing comes from 7 years of teaching junior high language arts, and she believes in the value of writing's ability to educate and empower both the writer and the reader.

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