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Surgical Technologist Education, Schools, and Career Overview

Surgical technologists are healthcare professionals very few patients remember encountering. This is because surgical technologists only see patients immediately before they are put under anesthesia for surgery. Although this is not a highly visible profession, the importance of the role surgical technologists play preparing for and assisting the physician in surgery cannot be underestimated.

To put it simply, surgical technologists assist surgeons during surgical procedures. These professionals work under the supervision of the surgeon to ensure that all the sterile and non-sterile equipment function properly. Surgical technologists also possess expertise in the application of sterile techniques and combine that knowledge with understanding the human anatomy, physiology and surgical procedures in order to facilitate the surgeon’s performance.

While there are some surgical techs who specialize, most must know how to assist on all procedures within all surgical specialties. These specialties include: cardiology, gynecology, neurology, urinary, orthopedic, peripheral vascular, optometric, “plastic” surgery, and general surgery just to name a few.

Surgical Technologist Specializations

Surgical techs can be trained in a number of different capacities, like those mentioned above. A higher level of surgical technologist training can prepare techs for the specialized role of circulating surgical technologist. This is a role that requires a greater level of involvement during the surgical procedure, though these professionals are no less involved in pre-operative and post-operative patient care.

During surgery, a circulating surgical technologist will actively assess the needs of both the patient and the operating room staff. The assessment may involve everything from monitoring a patient’s vital signs and comfort level, to making certain the surgeon and anesthesiologist are well accommodated and properly supplied with all necessary items. Specialized training provided to aspiring circulating surgical technologists can range from assisting with anesthesia prior to and during surgery to monitoring patient carts during procedures.

Surgical Technologist Duties

The responsibilities of a surgical technologist can include the following:

  • Determining which supplies and equipment are needed for a surgical procedure
  • Opening supplies and instruments in a sterile manner
  • Performing the scrub and putting on the sterile gown and gloves
  • Setting up the sterile back table on which the sterile supplies and instruments are opened
  • Gowning and gloving the surgeon and assistants
  • Putting the sterile drapes on the patient
  • Moving everything up to the “field” for surgery
  • Passing the instruments and supplies to the surgeon during the procedure
  • Performing the counts for sponges, instruments and sharps
  • Handling the tissue specimens
  • Breaking down the back table of all the instruments and supplies and cleaning the operating room and prepare it for the next patient

How to Become a Surgical Technologist

As part of surgical tech programs, students take classes such as anatomy, medical terminology and physiology, but also complete training in a clinical setting so that they gain practical job-oriented experiences. Upon graduation, they may wish to seek certification from either the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting or the National Center for Competency Testing, the BLS says.

The following can be used as general steps to help lead you to a career as a surgical technologist:

  1. Enroll in and graduate from an accredited surgical technology program.
  2. Sit for the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA) national certification exam.
  3. Look for a job in the field.
  4. Complete the necessary continuing education requirements of 60 credits over a four-year period.
  5. If you wish to advance, enroll in a surgical first assistant program (most are one year in duration).
  6. Sit for the NBSTSA Certified First Assistant national certification exam.

Surgical technologist degree programs

Becoming a surgical technologist typically requires completion of a college program, often at the diploma, certificate or associate-degree level, according to the BLS. Students can look for training programs across the U.S. that are either accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES).

Training through most surgical technologist schools will take as many as two years when pursing an associate’s level degree, or as few as nine months as is the case for certificate programs. These programs involve didactic classroom instruction, but the more crucial experiential component of these programs comes from clinical exposure. Didactic courses that are a standard part of these programs would include microbiology, pharmacology, medical terminology, professional ethics, physiology, and anatomy. 

The clinical component of surgical technologist programs will involve more specialized skill-based training that would include sterilization techniques, surgical procedures, patient assessment methods, drug and instrument handling techniques, as well as methods by which to prevent and control infection.

The core curriculum that the Association of Surgical Technologists (AST) publishes outlines the number of cases that a student must complete as part of his/her program. There is not a set number of hours required but rather a number of cases.

Surgical technologist schools

Look for programs accredited by the Commission on the Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) available in the United States. In order for an individual to sit for the NBSTSA exam he/she must graduate from an CAAHEP or ABHES accredited program. The Association of Surgical Technologists (AST) publishes the Core Curriculums for Surgical Technology. Accredited programs must base their program curriculum on the core curriculum in order to maintain program accreditation status. 

The Accreditation Review Council on Education in Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (ARC/STSA), is one of several allied health accrediting organizations under the large umbrella of CAAHEP to accredit surgical technology programs. ARC-STSA conducts the mechanics of the program accreditations by conducting site visits and collecting self study reports from the programs to show they are meeting standards. ARC/STSA then makes recommendations if they believe a program should be granted accreditation and submits proposals to CAAHEP who makes the final program accreditation decision. 

Surgical technologist certification

There is a voluntary national certification for surgical technologists offered through The National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA). This organization is responsible for all aspects of the national certification exam including the policies and development of the exams. Although this exam is not required in order to practice as a surgical technologist in most states, more and more employers are requiring it as a condition of employment. There are three states, South Carolina, Texas, and Tennessee that require the Certified Surgical Technologist (CST) credential in order to work as a surgical technologist. Currently there are no state licenses for this profession, only the national CST certification as mentioned previously.

The Certified Surgical Technologist exam consists of 200 multiple-choice questions of which 175 are scored and test takers are given four hours to complete it. To pass the exam, the test taker must correctly answer 119 questions. There is a 75% pass rate on this exam. The individual must be a graduate of an accredited surgical technology program to be eligible to take the certification exam. The exam costs between $190 and $290 depending on whether you are a student or first time test taker and whether you are a member of the Association of Surgical Technologists.

If the person chooses to renew the CST credential through continuing education, he/she must earn sixty continuing education credits over a four-year certification cycle. A person can opt to retake the national certification exam every four years rather than earning continuing education requirements, but this involves paying all the testing fees. The majority of people in this profession renew the credential by completing continuing education credits. 

Career advancement for surgical technologists

In this field, if someone decides they want to move on to another field within or outside of health care, it typically happens after about five years of practice as a surgical technologist. If after five years the person still wants to work as a surgical technologist, typically he/she stays with it as a career.

Advanced levels of training and the time spent in school are directly related to advancement and opportunities for moving into more specialized surgical technologist jobs. The specialized work of circulating surgical technologists is reserved for those who have aspired to bachelor’s level training. Those who are interested in moving out of the operating room pay pursue managerial positions within a hospital or clinic as the head of the central supply department. However, most who choose this profession express an interest in higher levels of responsibility and involvement during surgical procedures. Through more advanced training and job experience, surgical technologists can also aspire to becoming surgical assistants where they’ll work as the right hand to a hospital’s resident surgeon.

Surgical Technologist Skills and Qualities

Communication skills are a must in this profession. It is essential to be able to communicate both quickly and clearly since surgical technologists work under high-pressure situations. Individuals considering this profession should also work well in teams. The ability to stay focused during high-pressure situations with the surgeon and surgical team is very important in order to consistently deliver quality surgical patient care. Finally, having good dexterity skills along with good physical stamina are important traits in this field.

Surgical Technologist Salary and Career Outlook

Salaries for surgical technologists can vary based on a number of factors, including the place in which they work, time on the job and even whether they have obtained certification. Here’s the latest salary info for surgical techs:

CareerAnnual Mean WageBottom 10% Annual WageTop 10% Annual Wage
Surgical Technologists$48,060$32,470$67,000
Source: 2016 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov.

The BLS reports that an aging baby boomer population will be in need of more surgical procedures and that surgical technologists may be needed to help. Also, surgical technologists may be in high demand in emergency rooms because they typically cost less to employ than registered nurses. Here’s data to show the latest surgical technologist job growth trends:

CareerTotal EmploymentProjected Job Growth Rate
Surgical Technologists106,47011.7%
Source: 2016 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov.

Academic Resources for Surgical Technologists

The Association of Surgical Technologists (AST) is a national membership association for surgical technologists and surgical first assistants, which is separate from the national board certification company (NBSTSA) the exam is offered through.

Sources:

1.     Surgical Technologists, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/surgical-technologists.htm#tab-6
2.     Surgical Technologists, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics. http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes292055.htm

Surgical Technologist Schools