Surgical technicians, also called surgical technologists or operating room technicians, assist surgeons, anesthesiologists, and others before, during, and after surgery. They work principally under the supervision of registered nurses.
They help set up the operating room with surgical instruments, equipment, sterile linens, and fluids such as glucose that will be needed during an operation. Surgical technicians also may prepare patients for surgery by washing, shaving, and disinfecting body areas where the surgeon will operate. They may transport patients to the operating room and help drape them and position them on the operating table.
During surgery, they pass instruments and other sterile supplies to the surgeons and the surgeons' assistants. They hold retractors, cut sutures, and help count the sponges, needles, supplies, and instruments used during the operation. Surgical technicians help prepare, care for, and dispose of specimens taken for laboratory analysis during the operation and help apply dressings. They may operate sterilizers, lights, suction machines, and assist with the operation of diagnostic equipment.
After the operation, surgical technicians may help transfer patients to the recovery room and assist nurses in cleaning and stocking the operating room for the next operation.
Surgical technicians work in clean, well-lighted, cool environments. They need stamina to be on their feet the whole time they are on duty and to pay close attention to detail during operations.
Most surgery is performed during the day, but some work places, such as emergency surgical units, require 24-hour coverage. A 40-hour, 5-day work week is normal for surgical technicians, although many are required at times to be "on call" (available to work on short notice for emergencies).
Surgical technicians held about 36,000 jobs in 1990. In a few regions of the country, technicians known as private scrubs are employed directly by surgeons. Most, however, are employed by hospitals and other places that have operating room, delivery room, and emergency room facilities.
Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
Nearly all technicians receive their training in formal programs offered by community and junior colleges, vocational and technical schools, or hospitals. Although most programs last from 9 to 10 months, some community college programs last 2 years and lead to an associate degree. In 1990, there were 203 training programs for surgical technicians, of which 103 were accredited by the Committee on Allied Health Education and Accreditation of the American Medical Association. High school graduation normally is required for admission.
Accredited programs provide classroom training as well as supervised clinical experience. Required courses include anatomy, physiology, and microbiology. Other courses include the care and safety of patients during surgery, use of anesthesia and its hazards, and surgical care procedures. Students also learn how to sterilize instruments; prevent and control infection; and handle special drugs, solutions, supplies, and equipment.
Some surgical technicians receive their training in hospital-based programs that last from 6 months to 1 year, depending on the program's admission requirements. The shorter programs are designed for licensed practical nurses, who already have some background in anatomy, physiology, and clinical practice. The longer programs, from 9 months to a year, are for individuals with no background in health care.
Some surgical technicians are trained in the Armed Forces. Regardless of where they are educated and trained, surgical technicians are expected to keep abreast of new developments in the field. With additional training, they can work with new equipment such as lasers and assist in complex procedures such as open heart surgery. Obtaining professional credentials for this occupation is voluntary; the Liaison Council on Certification certifies technicians who demonstrate entry level knowledge by successfully passing a national certification examination. Continuing education or examination is required to maintain certification, which must be renewed every 6 years.
Manual dexterity is a necessity for surgical technicians because they must handle instruments quickly, often having to anticipate which instrument is needed. They must be conscientious, orderly, and emotionally stable. In surgery, there is little margin for error. High school students interested in careers in this occupation are advised to take courses in health and biology.
Some surgical technicians advance to supervisory or administrative positions. They may be promoted to operating room administrator, for example, who deals with the day-to- day running of an operating room, or they may direct a hospitalwide sterile supply service.
Employment in this field is expected to grow much faster than the average for all occupations through the year 2000. As in other occupations, most job openings will result from the need to replace experienced workers who transfer to other occupations or stop working altogether.
Future prospects for surgical technicians will be affected by both the rising volume of surgery and shifts in surgical practice patterns. The number of surgical procedures is expected to grow rapidly due to population growth, the increasing number of older people, technological advances that permit surgical intervention for more conditions than ever before, and widespread insurance coverage for surgical care.
The rate of surgery has climbed steadily among persons 65 years of age and above. Elderly patients typically undergo surgery for cataracts, hip replacements, hernia repair, or prostate repair or removal, for example. As new procedures and improvements in technology continue to make surgery less risky and more successful, the potential benefits to elderly patients increasingly outweigh the risks. Rapid growth of the 65-and-over population in the years ahead is almost certain to sustain a high level of demand for surgery.
Surgical practice patterns are changing, however; the dominant trend is a shift to outpatient or ambulatory surgery. Advances in laser technology, fiber optics, and anesthesia have made it possible for many more procedures to be performed on an outpatient basis, while the effort to contain health care costs has created a powerful incentive to do so. Some health insurance plans, for example, cover the full cost of outpatient surgery but pay only part of the cost if the same procedure entails a hospital stay. As a result, a growing number of surgical procedures are being performed by surgeons in hospital outpatient departments, which employ surgical technicians as assistants. Ambulatory surgery is performed in physicians' offices, clinics, and freestanding surgicenters, but relatively few surgical technicians are employed in these settings. Depending on how much surgery shifts away from hospitals, therefore, job growth fur surgical technicians could be curtailed--despite the rising volume of surgery.
Cost-cutting measures within hospitals could also dampen employment growth: Some hospitals are trying to hold down labor costs by reducing the number of employees with only one skill and putting greater emphasis on "multicompetent" staff who have the training to perform a variety of tasks. In the operating room, this could mean greater reliance on registered nurses and fewer positions for nursing assistants and surgical technicians.
The average starting salary for surgical technicians was about $15,400 a year in 1990, according to a national survey by the University of Texas Medical Branch. Experienced technicians earned an average salary of approximately $20,900 annually.
Salaries vary widely by geographic location, with those on the east and west coasts generally higher. Surgical technicians employed by surgeons tend to earn more than those employed by hospitals and similar institutions.
Other workers who perform medical activities under supervision are chiropractor assistants, dental assistants, electrocardiograph technicians, electroencephalographic technologists, licensed practical nurses, medical assistants, nursing aides, occupational therapy assistants, orderlies, and physical therapy aides.
Sources of Additional Information
Additional information on a career as a surgical technician, on training programs for the occupation, and on certification is available from:
Association of Surgical Technologists, 8307 Shaffer Parkway, Caller No. E, Littleton, Colo. 80120.