What to expect from a surgical tech school
Surgical technicians work alongside surgeons and surgical assistants (sometimes called first assistants) in an operating room during a surgical procedure. Generally, their responsibilities include getting the operating room ready (which includes stocking and sterilizing instruments), preparing surgeons for the operation and providing surgeons with tools during the operation. They can also be responsible for disposing of medical samples taken during the surgery or caring for the patient before and after the operation.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, surgical technologists, also known as operating room technicians, typically need a professional certificate or a postsecondary credential such as an associate degree (BLS.gov, 2012). The curriculum at surgical tech schools can include anatomy, medical terminology, biology and a clinical work-experience program. In addition, surgical technicians receive training on the proper way to sterilize patients and instruments, how to care for patients before and after surgery, and how to prevent or control infections.
What it takes to be a surgical tech
Surgical technicians function as part of the health care team, which includes registered nurses, radiographers and other health care workers such as surgeons and physicians. Techs may be required to stand for long periods of time or work with the terminally ill. Aspiring surgical technicians may find it helpful to possess the following qualities, as listed by the BLS (BLS.gov, 2012):
- Attention to detail
Additionally, as the environment can be stressful and psychologically challenging, emotionally stable individuals who work well under pressure may be better positioned for success during surgical tech training than others.
Some states require surgical technologists to graduate from an accredited program and receive certification (BLS.gov, 2012). The Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) offers a searchable list of accredited programs for surgical technology. The BLS reports that surgical technologists who gain experience and the required additional education may have opportunities to advance to positions as surgical assistants, registered nurses or physician assistants (BLS.gov, 2012). CAAHEP has more information on the role of surgical assistants.
Tools of the trade for surgical techs
After preparing the patient for surgery, which includes moving the patient into the operating room and sterilizing the surgical area, the surgical technician is responsible for arranging and preparing the surgeon's tools. Traditional tools can include the following:
- Surgical lighting fixtures: Correct lighting is important in surgeries, and surgical technicians may be responsible for positioning the light before and during surgery
- Betadine or similar products: Betadine, the ubiquitous yellow-brown solution used to sterilize the area on a patient's body where surgery is planned, is a brand of povidone-iodine antiseptic
- Hemostats: The surgeon's clamps used to cut off blood flow to veins and arteries prior to a tie off, different from bulldog clamps in that they are either completely restricting the flow of blood or not at all
- Scalpels: The traditional tool used by surgeons to make incisions
- Forceps: Similar to tweezers or other devices used to grasp and hold objects smaller than fingers would allow
However, the modern surgical room is changing, as shown in research from schools such as the University of Washington and the University of North Dakota. Robotics and sonography are being used in the operating room to facilitate accurate and quick removal of cancers, growths or other tissues as well as to make precise incisions on patients. Surgical technicians can expect to work with some or all of the following modern surgical tools:
- Surgical lasers: Used instead of scalpels, these lasers cut through soft tissue while immediately cauterizing the blood vessels, preventing the need for suction devices or sponges.
- Wound clips: Used instead of stitches for some procedures, these clips are designed to be easy to apply and easy to remove.
- Cautery systems: Some cautery systems are as sophisticated as lasers while others can more closely resemble soldering irons. These tools are used in conjunction with scalpels to cauterize the blood vessels and prevent bleeding.
- Endoscopes: An endoscope is a long and flexible tube with a camera and light on the end. This tool is used to see inside of bodily organs or to provide close inspection of an operation that normally would not be visible.
Surgical technicians may also be responsible for using sterilizing systems such as autoclaves, which use pressurized steam to sanitize instruments and samples, as well as smaller sterilizing systems used exclusively for instruments. Instead of incinerating surgical samples and waste, some hospitals are turning to autoclaves to sterilize liquid and solid waste before disposal.
Potential employment opportunities for surgical technicians
As of May 2011, the BLS reports that the national annual median wage for surgical technicians was $40,950. Nationally, the highest and lowest 10 percent made an annual wage of $59,150 and $28,860, respectively, during the same time period (BLS.gov, 2012). Additionally, as a result of an aging baby boom generation -- which could increase the number of surgeries -- surgical technicians may experience employment opportunity growth of up to 19 percent, nationally, from 2010 to 2020 (BLS.gov, 2012).
Sources and further reading:
Consolidated Sterilizer Systems
Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2011
Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012
Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs
University of North Dakota: Tiny Bubbles - Exploring Revolutionary non-invasive surgery methods
University of Washington: Robotics