What Is a Surgical Technologist? A Look Inside This Critical Career

illustration of a tray of surgical instruments

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—or close to it—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 crucial roles in the outcome.

One of these medical specialists is called a surgical technologist. 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, provide the surgeon with necessary tools during the operation, and 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):1

  • 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 histories

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 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.

When it comes to location, 73 percent of surgical technologists work in a hospital and 10 percent work in outpatient care centers, with another 10 percent in physician offices, according to the BLS.1 A small three percent of surgical techs worked in dental facilities in 2019.1

Hospitals offer a variety of operating specialty areas, 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
  • Pediatrics: Assist with operations on children

Outpatient centers also offer specialty surgeries, such as:

  • Podiatry: Assist in surgeries related to feet
  • Orthopedic: Assist in operations connected to bones, joints, tendons and muscles
  • Plastic surgery: Assist with operations connected to cosmetic procedures

Who works with surgical technologists?

Like most careers in healthcare, the surgical tech role is meant to operate as part of a team. Surgical techs may have several solitary tasks in a given day (for example, sterilizing equipment), but they also work collaboratively alongside surgeons, anesthesiologists and nurses. They may assist directly in surgeries by passing tools to surgeons and surgeon assistants, as well as helping to retract tissues from the surgical patient.

This role is also somewhat patient facing since surgical techs may help prepare patients for surgery, transport them to the operating room, and apply bandages and sutures. As Christiansen points out, surgical techs may also interact with patient family members, helping everyone understand what is happening.

What kind of schedules do surgical technologists have?

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.

The good news is that surgical technologists are positioned well. Surgical technology careers are projected to grow at the faster-than-average rate of seven percent through 2029, according to the BLS.1 There were nearly 111,300 surgical technologists employed in the United States in 2019, and the BLS projects there will be an additional 7,600 job openings through 2029.1 The BLS notes that as medical technology has advanced, more procedures are being conducted.1 Pair that with the large baby boomer generation aging into the stage of life where they’re likely to require additional care, and the outlook for surgical technologists looks strong.

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.1 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 the time commitment can be manageable. In fact, the Rasmussen University Surgical Technologist program can be completed in as few as 21 months.2 That’s right—you can become qualified to begin working in the field in less than two years.

How much do surgical technologists make?

If you are considering the investment of education, you’ll want to know what to expect in terms of salary. Like many healthcare positions, the annual salary for a surgical technologist varies greatly based on location, experience and the type of facility you work in. But if you’re looking for a ballpark figure, the BLS reports that the 2020 median annual salary for a surgical technologist in was $49,710.1

Surgical techs who worked in outpatient centers generally earned a little more in 2019, with a median annual salary of $52,120.1

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 what it takes by reading “Your 4-Step Guide on How to Become a Surgical Technologist.”

1Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [April, 2021] www.bls.gov/ooh/. Information represents national, averaged data for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries. Employment conditions in your area may vary.

Brianna Flavin

Brianna is a content writer for Collegis Education who writes student focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen University. She earned her MFA in poetry and teaches as an adjunct English instructor. She loves to write, teach and talk about the power of effective communication.

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