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How to Become a Surgical Tech in 2021

October 4, 2021 | Staff Writers

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In every highly functional operating room, there is a team of exceptionally skilled professionals working hand in hand with the surgeons to ensure the best possible outcome. Some of these precision-oriented individuals are surgical technologists. 

Also known as surgical techs, certified surgical technologists, or OR (Operating Room) techs, these individuals work very closely with the entire surgical team to provide a sterile and safe environment. 

Often the first people to arrive and the last to leave an OR, surgical technologists are responsible for the operating room supplies. They ensure that all the necessary tools such as bandages, gauze, and other medical supplies are not only in place but that they are sterile and properly placed for the surgeon’s convenience. 

Every surgical team member has specific duties with which they are charged in the operating room, and surgical techs duties, among others, include:

  • Restocking the OR as per the scheduled surgical procedure
  • Sterilizing the equipment within the operating room
  • Wheeling the patients in and out of the operating room
  • Helping tie the other team members into their surgical gowns in place

In short, it’s the surgical tech’s job to ensure that the OR is in great working order and that everything is not only where it’s supposed to be but that it’s also sterile. This calls for an extremely detail-oriented individual and at ease with keeping a checklist for every surgical procedure. Suffice to say that a surgical technician is one of the most important members of any surgical team. 

So, what does it take to become a surgical technician? What kind of surgical tech programs exist, and is a career in surgical technology worth the effort? These are all questions that will be answered below. 

Skills and Traits of Successful Surgical Technologists

Considering the kind of environment in which surgical technicians work, there are a few traits that these individuals simply must possess. Unfortunately, no matter how prepared or how skilled the entire team is, surgeries are often akin to a roll of the dice, with one study finding out that they go wrong 50% of the time. 

It’s partly the job of a surgical technician to ensure that these odds are leveled in favor of success. This calls for a meticulous personality that obsesses over every little detail. Whether they are handling the surgical equipment or listening to the surgeon’s instructions, the surgical tech’s concentration cannot and must not waver throughout the entire surgical procedure. They are often called upon to begin preparations long before the procedure is underway. 

Here are some of the most important skills and personality traits that top surgical techs must possess to succeed in this field: 

Must be Detail-Oriented

Apart from having medical expertise and knowledge (something the surgical tech gains in school), this is by far the most important personality trait that they simply must possess. On any given surgical procedure, there are tens of surgical equipment, some very small, that are used in the OR. 

It’s the surgical tech’s job to ensure that all these pieces of equipment are available and sterilized before the procedure begins and that they are all there after the procedure. 

According to the American Society of Anesthesiologists, about one dozen pieces of surgical instruments and sponges are left inside surgical patients on any given day. This has led to about 6,000 surgical malpractice cases every year, not to mention its dangers to the patients themselves. 

The surgical tech must count every piece of surgical equipment and instruments used in the OR and ensure that none, not even sponges, are left inside the patient during open abdominal procedures. This often calls for keeping a checklist and paying close attention to the procedure itself, some of which last for over six hours without losing focus. 

Must be a Team Player

The ability to work in groups is not a trait that everyone, especially high functioning individuals, posses. This, however, is a trait that a surgical technologist must-have considering the sheer number of people in an OR during any given procedure. 

Apart from working closely with the surgeon or surgeons carrying out the procedure, surgical techs also need to work hand in hand with:

  • Surgical nurses
  • Anesthesiologists
  • Surgical first assistants
  • The patient

They also need to coordinate most of these procedures with other nurses and doctors since wheeling the patient to and from the operating room is part of the surgical tech’s duties. This calls for communicating with floor nurses and other medical care staff members who might interact with the patient at some point. Working well with this kind of group dynamic calls for excellent interpersonal skills, the ability to listen and communicate well with others. 

Excellent Communication Skills

When working in an extremely fluid environment such as a hospital or healthcare facility, professionals need to communicate well, effectively, and efficiently with others. This is particularly true when working in an operating room where things could go wrong and happen very quickly. 

A good surgical tech needs to be able to communicate what they need in the most efficient of manners. This communication needs to be clear and concise. 

They also need to be able to receive rapid instructions and remember exactly what the surgeon and other team members need. This comes in great handy when things start going on, and everyone is yelling over each other, trying to save the patient. 

A simple misunderstanding or misinterpretation of a request in the OR can have extremely dire consequences for the patient, the hospital, and the entire surgical team. 

Outstanding Dexterity

One of the main duties of a surgical technician is to hand the surgeon the surgical equipment they ask for when they ask for them. It’s also part of their duties to receive these pieces of equipment or hold them in place while handing the surgeon a different piece of equipment. All this needs to be done with almost no room for error. 

This means that for a surgical tech to be effective, they need exceptional dexterity. Shaking hands, waning concentration and lack of hand-eye coordination are not traits that any surgical technician can have and still work in the medical field. 

Almost Superhuman Stamina

The longest surgery ever on record was performed in 2001 when a team of surgeons in Singapore General Hospital spent four straight days or 103 hours separating a pair of 11-month old twins who were conjoined at the head. Of course, these surgeons took turns to get through the entire procedure. 

However, it’s not unheard of for a single surgical team to go for 18 hours or even more without stopping during complicated procedures. These are hours that are extremely crucial to keeping the patient alive, and not a single member of the surgical team, including the surgical technicians, can take time off to rest their eyes or get off their feet. 

This calls for incredible stamina and the ability to compartmentalize feelings of discomfort and still be able to function at an optimum degree to do the job as required. That’s why most surgeons and members of the surgical team take their health and fitness very seriously, even outside the hospital setting.

Stress-Management Skills

In keeping with having good stamina and the kind of physical care surgical techs need to take outside of the OR, their ability to manage stress is also key to their performance on the job. Much like physical fitness, this calls for outside self-care. 

There are many stress management techniques that surgical technologists can practice outside of the operating room to ensure that they remain both calm and collected inside the OR. Some of the most popular include:

  • Running
  • Swimming
  • Meditating
  • Cycling
  • Aerobics
  • Sojourning with nature

One of the most important habits to develop is stress-relief breathing. This isn’t just a trick that can be used outside of the OR but also inside when a surgical procedure is ongoing. 

There is no secret that the operating room carries inherent stress. From being part of the team that holds the patient’s life in their hands to working with other team members and getting yelled at by surgeons, a good surgical tech needs to be able to breathe and function well through it all. 

Not Squeamish

While this might sound like a given, considering that surgical technicians know they will be working in the OR before choosing this career path, the truth is that how graphic the reality takes many by surprise. 

Someone who is naturally squeamish might think that they can learn to control it, which they can to a point, but the OR takes no prisoners. This is where the human body is laid bare and open. These kinds of images and bodily fluids can be nauseating even to the most non-squeamish individual. 

On the other hand, it could also be quite fascinating for others. Either way, the surgical tech is required to maintain their focus through all this and do their job effectively without getting distracted. 

Finally, these individuals need to be:

  • Dependable
  • Accountable
  • Calm
  • Honest

People’s lives are at stake here, and every member of the surgical team needs to be at their very best at all times and own up to any mistakes that might occur due to errors they may have made in the OR. 

Role Requirements of a Surgical Technologists

The surgical technologists work under the supervision of the surgeon in charge of the operating room. While some specific duties with which the surgical tech is directly charged, he or she is often called upon to perform a host of other tasks within the OR to assist other members of the surgical team and ensure that everything runs smoothly during an operation. 

That means that a surgical technologist may be asked to do something outside of their scope on top of their typical tasks but within their skillset and abilities. With that in mind, here are the different roles performed by surgical technologists before, during, and even after an operation:

Scrub Surgical Technologist

Typically referred to as the scrub tech, this is one of the main roles a surgical technician plays in the Operating Room. A scrub surgical technologist is tasked with handling the surgical instruments, medical supplies, and equipment needed to perform the surgical procedure. This means that the scrub tech needs to have a good grasp or understanding of the procedure at hand to anticipate the chief surgeon’s needs. 

Here are just some of the duties that come with this role:

  • Make a list of all the supplies or equipment that will be needed for the upcoming procedure
  • Check to make sure that all the necessary supplies and equipment are in good working order
  • Check gowns, scrubs, and gloves
  • Set up the sterile table with all the necessary supplies, equipment, medical solutions, and supplies necessary for the scheduled procedure
  • Create a checklist and count every single surgical instrument, sponge, and medical supplies before and after the procedure
  • Help drape the sterile field
  • Pass the necessary surgical instruments to and from the surgeon as needed
  • Ensure that the OR is kept in the highest possible standard of sterility during the entire procedure
  • Assist other surgical team members with terminal cleaning of the operating room and equipment
  • Help prep the room for the next patient

Circulating Surgical Technologist

In any given operating room, a Circulating Surgical Technologist assists the Scrub Tech when it comes to obtaining any additional surgical instruments or equipment during the surgical procedure.

This is the surgical technologist that can move in and out of the OR during the procedure. This professional is mostly tasked with monitoring the entire OR and anticipating what the surgeon and the surgical team might need extra supplies.

Here are some of the key functions of the Circulating Surgical Technologist:

  • Get both sterile and any unsterile supplies needed by the surgical team during the procedure
  • Open the necessary sterile supplies as needed
  • Check the patient’s chart, verify the kind of surgical procedure to be performed, check that all consent forms have been filled out and duly signed, confirm the patient’s identity, and in some cases, wheel the patient to the OR
  • Help to transfer the patient to the OR table
  • Provide reassurance to the patient
  • Position the patient as necessary during the procedure using the appropriate equipment
  • Assist the anesthesia personnel
  • Apply any necessary tourniquets, electrosurgical grounding pads, and monitors as needed before the surgical procedure begins
  • Sterilize the patient’s skin and prepare the location of the incision
  • Double-check the equipment and supplies count with the scrub tech before and after the procedure, as well as keep meticulous records through the procedure
  • Secure the patient’s dressing after the procedure
  • Anticipate the needs of the surgical team
  • Help clean up after the procedure

Second Assisting Technologist

There is yet another surgical technologist typically referred to as the Second Assisting Technologist in the operating room. This professional is tasked with assisting the surgeon and the first two surgical techs with duties other than clamping, cutting, or suturing tissue. Their job is more technical, and the typical duties include:

  • Holding the instruments such as retractors in place as per the surgeon’s request
  • Suctioning or sponging the operative site
  • Cutting suture material as per the surgeon’s request
  • Applying electrocautery to clamps on any bleeders
  • Applying dressings to the closed wounds

A good majority of surgical tech work in a hospital setting, assisting surgeons in the operating room and helping the patient transition from the surgical procedure to recovery. 

However, few surgical technologists work in outpatient care centers and even in doctor’s offices during patient care. Their duties often remain the same and revolve around keeping meticulous records of surgical supplies and equipment necessary for most medical procedures. 

How to Find the Right Surgical Technologist Program

Just like almost everyone else in the operating room, surgical technologists go through a rigorous education regimen to prepare them for the sensitive nature of work that the career brings. Individuals looking to become scrub techs or surgical technologists need to carefully choose which program to attend. 

The best part is that the top surgical student programs in the country all have a few things that set them apart. Here are some of the most common traits that the best surgical technologist’s programs have in common: 

Excellent Reputation

Whenever searching online for surgical technology programs, be on the lookout for what other students or former students are saying about the program in question. This is the information age, and everything students need to know about any program or school can be found online or, at the very least, takes just a little bit of digging. 

Another alternative is to search for the program’s alumni and get a sense of how they are doing. This is often an indicator of how well the surgical technology program in question prepared them for a career in this field. 

Accreditation

The Association of Surgical Technologists is a robust resource on some of the best and accredited surgical technology programs that students can consider joining. Going to an accredited school is one of the best ways to ensure that the standard of education one receives is not only of the highest possible regulated level but is also recognized by the industry at large. 

Not only does this give the student an excellent opportunity to learn through the best and well-structured programs in the country, but it also puts them in a better position when it comes to finding jobs after graduation.

Quality of Faculty

How qualified and expertly trained the teachers in any school are directly impacts how well they, in turn, can train and teach the students. Finding a school that has extremely qualified and well-trained tutors but frequently invites big industry experts for talks and lessons will give the surgical student an added advantage as far as the quality of education is concerned. 

One of the best ways to know whether or not the faculty in any surgical tech school are highly qualified is to simply check their bios online. This information can be obtained from their LinkedIn pages or their professional write-ups on the school’s website. 

Another alternative is to read the reviews the teachers get from other students. That last part is especially important since highly qualified teachers don’t always translate to effective tutors. 

Student Support System

There are several types of student support that schools can offer. The most important type for new students comes in the form of access to educational material and faculty. However, as students advance in their education and training, other types of support need to come into play. 

These often come in the form of graduate placements, alumni networks, and practical classes offered. The best schools often have a wide network of possible job placement options that their exemplary students can take advantage of either after or even before graduation. Not only are these opportunities for internship programs but also eventual employment. 

Teacher to Student Ratio

The best schools have an ideal teacher-to-student ratio that offers each student adequate access to the lecturer. These schools also offer the best hands-on programs that effectively equip their students with the skills and experience they need for real-world work environs. 

Finally, other factors need to come into play, such as:

  • Affordability
  • How flexible the programs are especially for students who have hectic lives and would benefit best from a hybrid system that allows them to take most of their classes remotely
  • How difficult is the school to get into? 
  • Student graduation rate

Finding the right program that allows students to become certified surgical technologist is just as crucial as passing the exams that come with the program itself. 

Surgical Technologist Certification Requirements

So what does it take to become a certified surgical technologist? Here is a step by step guide towards becoming a member of this profession:

Step 1: Earn a High School Diploma or a GED

This is the very first step towards becoming a surgical technologist. Most accredited programs require each applicant to at least have a high school diploma or a GED. In some cases, a minimum GPA may be required, but this varies with each program. 

To boost admissions chances, students should consider taking classes in courses such as biology and human anatomy. Students could also volunteer and spend more time in medical settings to convince prospective programs or schools that they are interested and committed to this career path. 

Step 2: Get Into a Surgical Tech Program

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 500 surgical technology programs in the US. These programs are accredited by CAAHEP (Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs). There are numerous community colleges, such as Columbus State Community College, that offer two-year associate surgical technology degrees. 

There are also four-year surgical technology degree programs offered by top-ranking universities such as the University of Cincinnati Clermont College. These programs are designed to introduce students to courses such as “The Fundamentals of Surgical Technology” and often require about 64 credits to complete. 

Step 3: Earn Certification

While surgical techs don’t necessarily have to be certified to start working as scrub techs, it’s often one of the best ways to show prospective employers just how well-trained and prepared the candidate is for the NBSTSA or The National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting offers a wide range of respectable certification programs. 

Students often need to get NBSTSA’s approval to sit for the exam that consists of 175 questions and costs anywhere from $190 to $290. AST (Association of Surgical Technologists) members pay $190, and non-members pay $290.

Step 4: Find a Surgical Technologist Job

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for surgical techs stands at just under $50,000 per annum or $23.90 per hour. The industry, much like the rest of the medical industry, is poised to see job growth of about 7%, which is much faster than the average of most industries. 

This means that there are job opportunities available for the right kind of candidates. Of course, the pay and benefits fully depend on the organization for which the candidate works and state and level of qualification, certification, and experience. 

Having a career as a surgical tech doesn’t take quite as long as becoming a surgeon or a doctor. However, it does take some formal education through a two-year associate degree program or a four-year bachelor’s degree program. Either way, a career as a surgical tech is for people who enjoy helping others and have a passion for the medical field.

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