The operating room is a team environment, as surgical nurses and surgical technologists are well aware. The focus of the entire team is on the patient’s safety and well-being, from preventing complications such as anesthesia reactions or skin breakdown to providing emotional support before surgery. Although surgical nurses and surgical techs may perform some of the same duties, the nurse has a much broader scope of practice and greater responsibility.
Surgical nurses are more correctly called perioperative nurses. The term perioperative is meant to encompass not only the activities in the operating room but also preoperative and postoperative care as well. As registered nurses, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes perioperative nurses complete one of three programs: an associate degree, nursing diploma or bachelor’s degree. All RNs must be licensed, and certification in perioperative nursing is available, although not required for practice. Some organizations may prefer or require certification, however. Perioperative nurses may scrub -- maintain the sterile field and pass instruments or supplies to the surgeons -- or circulate. The circulating nurse coordinates care, obtains supplies and stays in communication with the patient’s family.
Surgical technologists are allied health professionals who work under the supervision of the surgeon. They may circulate or scrub. Surgical techs usually have a high school diploma and may have an associate degree or may be educated in a postsecondary program that confers a certificate. Education might take a few months or up to two years, according to the BLS. Requirements depend on the state, as not all states regulate surgical technologists. The BLS notes that surgical techs are not licensed.
RNs have a broad scope of practice that includes the use of nursing judgment and technical responsibilities such as medication administration. Surgical techs are limited to the roles of scrubbing or circulating. Perioperative nurses can also work in the post-anesthesia recovery unit, which a surgical tech cannot. RNs earn considerably more than surgical techs, according to the BLS. RNs earned $69,490 in hospitals and $71,200 in outpatient care centers, the two settings in which most perioperative nurses are found. Surgical techs earned $45,560 and $42,700 in the same settings.
Perioperative nurses and surgical techs perform the same technical roles in the operating room. Either, for example, might perform a surgical count or apply a dressing after the operation. Both require knowledge of sterile technique, patient positioning and other intraoperative care. In some states, surgical techs may also act as first assistants, a role that provides direct support to the surgeon. All perioperative RNs are eligible to become first assistants. Additional education and training is required for that role in either occupation, however.
Making Your Choice
Perioperative nurses have one distinct advantage over surgical techs. As RNs, they can change specialties with relative ease and move into another area of nursing. In other respects, the jobs are similar, although the educational period may be shorter for surgical techs, and they need not maintain licensure. Perioperative nurses earn considerably more than surgical techs and are more independent in day-to-day practice, while the surgical tech requires direct supervision by the surgeon.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Registered Nurses
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Surgical Technologists
- Mayo School of Health Sciences: Perioperative Nursing
- National Student Nurses Association: Perioperative Nursing
- Association of Surgical Technologists: Job Description Surgical Technologist
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2012 29-1141 Registered Nurses
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2012 29-2055 Surgical Technologists
- Jochen Sand/Digital Vision/Getty Images