What Is a Surgical Technologist?

November 11, 2022

Surgical technologists, also called operating room technicians, scrubs, scrub techs, or surgical technicians, are healthcare professionals whose primary duties include preparing the operating room before surgery and working closely with the surgical team.

Continue reading to learn more about what is a surgical technologist, the skills required, the academic prerequisites, career prospects, salary, and more.

Modern surgical team posing at the surgery room

What Does a Surgical Tech Do?

Operating room technicians are an invaluable part of the operating room team and handle various duties before, during, and after surgery, including ensuring patient safety. Let’s take a closer look at what role surgical technologists play at each of these stages:

Before a Surgery

Surgical technologists are responsible for preparing operating rooms for surgery before the surgeon or patient arrives. They ensure that all required surgical instruments and equipment are in place and the operating room is sterile. They then bring the patient in, cover them with sterile drapes, and clean the incision sites.

During a Surgery

Surgical technologists provide an extra pair of hands during surgical procedures. They pass out surgical instruments, prepare specialized equipment, position the surgical patient, and assist as instructed. They might set up robotic surgical equipment, keep organs in place, or hold retractors, depending on the surgery. The surgical technologist is also responsible for maintaining a sterile environment in the operating room.

After a Surgery

After surgery, the surgical technologist may dress the surgical site, take stock of surgical tools and equipment, restock the operating room, take the patient to recovery, and dispose of used needles, gauze, and other medical waste.

Surgical Technologist Qualities

A career as a surgical technologist can be extremely mentally and physically demanding. Surgical technologists work long hours under high stress, so they must be able to maintain focus and handle multiple tasks in a demanding environment.

Surgical technologists must be:

  • Extremely organized
  • Function well under pressure
  • Anticipate the surgeon’s needs
  • Respond to instructions quickly and accurately

On the physical front, a surgical technologist must:

  • Have the stamina to work for long stretches
  • Have the ability to stand or bend for extended periods
  • Possess the dexterity to handle and manipulate surgical instruments carefully
  • Go long hours without food or bathroom breaks
  • Be able to lift at least 20 pounds
Surgeon at the surgery room

Academic Requirements for a Surgical Technologist

Individuals keen to pursue a surgical technologist career can opt for various surgical technology courses and programs offered by junior and community colleges, universities, vocational schools, hospitals, and even the military.

Surgical technologists must first complete a surgical technology program, which can last anywhere from a few months to two years. An associate degree in surgical technology usually takes two years to complete, while a certificate program requires about a year.

Most of these programs require applicants to complete their high school education, while some have prerequisite courses such as anatomy, physiology, medical terminology, and microbiology.

The National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA) offers the national surgical technology certification examination to candidates who have graduated from a Surgical tech program accredited by:

  • The Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)
  • The Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES)
  • A Military Program

Subspecialties of Surgical Techs

Generally, qualified surgical technologists assist in various surgical procedures. However, they can get additional training to specialize in specific branches of surgery, such as orthopedic, reconstructive, ENT, obstetrics and gynecology, and microsurgery, among others.

Surgical techs specializing in cardiovascular and neurological procedures are among the highest-paid in the industry.

Medical Team Performing Surgical Operation in Modern Operating Room

How Much Does It Cost to Become a Surgical Tech?

Depending on whether you are applying for a one-year certificate or a two-year degree course, and also the State you are applying to, the typical surgical tech programs offered by public colleges can cost anything between $5,000 and $25,000.

Additional expenses include living costs and a surgical technician certification by the NBSTSA, which you will need to renew every four years. The certification exam costs $190 for members of the Association of Surgical Technologists (AST) and $290 for non-members.

Practice exams cost $40 each while renewing the certificate costs $399 for AST members and $499 for non-members.

Where Do Surgical Technologists Work?

Surgical techs usually work in hospitals, spending most of their time in operating rooms. However, surgical technologists are often hired at outpatient centers and at doctors’ or dentists’ offices.

Career Opportunities and Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment opportunities for surgical technologists are likely to grow by 9% over the next decade, which is slightly higher than the 8% average projected growth rate for all professions.

With experience and further qualifications, a certified surgical technologist can choose to specialize in a particular surgical field or consider diversifying into other areas of the medical profession.

First surgical assistants or registered nurses are common progressions for a lot of surgical techs, while some take on responsibilities in hospitals’ central supply departments or positions with surgical equipment manufacturers or suppliers.

Surgical Tech Salary Data

2020 saw surgical technologists across the United States earn an average of about $49,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A highly qualified or specialized surgical technician with a few years of experience can earn from $50,000 to over $70,000 a year, while entry-level salaries hover around the $35,000 to $40,000 mark.

California, Illinois, Nevada, New York, and Alaska are the highest-paying states for surgical technologists, while the best cities for surgical techs include San Francisco, San Jose, Sacramento, Minneapolis, and Boston.

Scrub nurse preparing medical instruments for operation


Is Becoming a Surgical Technologist a Good Career Option?

Yes, a surgical tech job is excellent for people looking to work in the healthcare industry.

How much does a certified surgical technologist make an hour?

The average surgical tech’s hourly pay is $30 to $40, while highly experienced techs can earn over $50 an hour.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Surgical Technician?

Depending on the program chosen, it can take one to two years to become a surgical technician.