How to Become a Certified Surgical Technologist

Whenever an operation is performed, it requires a team of specialized healthcare workers, which includes surgeons, registered nurses, surgical technologists and other medical specialists. If you’re fascinated by being part of an operating team but don’t want to pursue nursing or medical school, you may want to consider a career as a certified surgical technologist.

A surgical technologist, also called an operating room technician or a surgical tech, plays a very important role in the operating room. You may work long hours preparing and sterilizing equipment, disposing of lab specimens, keeping patients safe and assisting in surgery whenever needed.

Responsibilities of Surgical Technologists

A surgical technologist has a wide variety of surgery-related responsibilities encompassing tasks that need to be done before, during and after a surgical procedure. Before a patient undergoes an operation, you’ll assemble needed equipment and make sure everything is in good working order and properly sterilized and disinfected. You may be involved in getting patients ready to go to their procedure, bringing them to the operating room and positioning them on the operating table.

During the procedure, your duties may include passing equipment to surgeons and other members of the surgical team, holding tools or organs in place or setting up robotic equipment. You’ll keep close watch on supplies to make sure everything is accounted for and nothing is inadvertently left inside a patient. But your duties don’t end after an operation is complete. You may apply bandages or dressings to the incision site. You’ll bring patients to the recovery room and make sure the operating room is properly restocked.

Is a Surgical Technologist the Same as a Surgical Technician?

A surgical technologist may also be called a surgical technician. These two job titles are usually used interchangeably. A surgical assistant, also known as a first assistant, has more of a hands-on role during surgery. The assistant works closely with the surgeon and may perform tasks such as holding retractors, suctioning, suturing and sponging. After you’ve gained experience as a surgical technologist, you may wish to pursue further education to become a surgical assistant.

Can You Become a Surgical Tech Without Going to School?

Post-secondary education is usually required in order to become a surgical technologist. Options include certificate, diploma or degree programs, which may be offered in vocational schools, community colleges and some hospitals and universities. If you’re interested in getting started as soon as possible, diploma and certificate programs can usually be completed in one year or less. In approximately 18 to 24 months, you can earn an associate’s degree in surgical technology, which may lead to better-paying job opportunities.

Finding an Accredited Program

It’s important to look for a program that’s accredited by the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) or the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) to be eligible to take the Certified Surgical Technologist (CST) exam. Attending an accredited school is assurance that the program you’ve chosen meets the highest standards for the profession.

What You’ll Learn When Training to Become a Surgical Technologist

Admission into surgical tech training requires a high school diploma or the equivalent. Some schools require applicants to pass a criminal background check or to hold a CPR certificate. If CPR certification isn’t required upon admission, you may have to complete basic life support or CPR certification to qualify for certain jobs. You may need to complete math or English courses before beginning your career-related training when pursuing a two-year degree.

Training programs for surgical technologists include both classroom and hands-on learning. You’ll learn the theory behind procedures while practicing techniques in clinical settings. Courses that are covered in accredited programs include:

  • Microbiology
  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Patient care and safety
  • Sterilization techniques
  • Infection control
  • Pharmacology

You’ll learn about surgical tools and equipment including how to set up robotic and other technical equipment. You’ll gain expertise in scrubbing and gowning procedures as well as the safe handling of sharp surgical tools. Many programs include an externship where you can gain skills in direct patient care and gain real world experience as part of a surgical team.

Is it Hard to Become a Surgical Technologist?

Becoming a surgical tech isn’t for everyone. Some may find it hard to stand on their feet all day, while others find out that the sight and smell of bodily fluids is more difficult to be around than they’d expected. While the vast majority of surgeries go smoothly, when something goes wrong during a procedure, the environment can be tense, and surgeons can get short-tempered and impatient.

If none of that discourages you, keep in mind that this is a skilled profession that requires education and training. It’s true that some of your classes may be challenging, but if you’re committed to becoming a surgical technologist, there’s no reason you can’t complete the required curriculum. Expect to invest time and effort in your education, and as long as you do that, you can attain your goal of becoming a surgical technologist.

Other Characteristics Needed to Work as a Surgical Technologist

Certain other qualities can be beneficial for a career in the field of surgical technology. You’ll need to be a person who pays close attention to detail, because it’s important to be sure you always hand the right equipment to surgeons and that you follow proper sterilization procedures. You’ll need the physical stamina and endurance to stand on your feet for as long as necessary during a surgical procedure and to be able to work well under pressure.

Good communication skills are very important for surgical techs. It’s imperative that you listen closely to other members of the surgical team and that you’re able to clearly communicate any issues that may arise during surgery to the physician or other team members. You’ll also need critical thinking skills.

Can I Become a Surgical Tech Online?

Online education is becoming more and more popular since it often allows students to take classes at convenient times, possibly while still working at another job. If you have no experience working in a surgical environment, you won’t be able to become a certified surgical technologist exclusively by taking online classes. Part of your education needs to include hands-on experience in a supervised clinical environment. Many programs do offer flexible options for obtaining the needed training, including evening and weekend classes.

If you’re already a certified surgical technologist and were trained by completing a short-term certificate or diploma program, you may be able to take advanced courses online. These online courses may allow you to earn an associate’s degree without attending additional in-person classes.

Licenses and Certification of Surgical Technologists

Achieving certified status by passing the CST exam is required by some states for employment. Even if you live in a state that doesn’t require certification, it’s a good idea to pursue it. This will help you to be as competitive as possible in the job market. Once you’ve passed the certification exam through the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assistants, you can use the title “Certified Surgical Technologist.”

Taking the CST Exam

Once you’ve graduated from an accredited program and are ready to take the test, you’ll need to allow up to six weeks for your application to be processed through the NBSTSA. A practice exam is available to help you know what you should focus on when you study.

The CST exam consists of 175 questions. Of these, 150 are scored, with 25 unscored questions distributed randomly through the test.  You’ll need to answer at least 102 of the 150 scored questions correctly to earn your certification. If you fail your exam on the first try, you can apply to retake the test immediately.  You can take the test a maximum of three times in a calendar year.

Renewing Your Certification

Once you’ve become a certified surgical technologist, you’re certified for two years and will need to renew your certification before it expires. The date your certification expires is clearly printed on your certificate and card.  To renew your certification, you’ll need to complete 30 continuing education (CE) credits. The Association of Surgical Technologists provides information regarding acceptable CE credits. If you don’t complete the required CE credits, you may also retake the certification exam to renew your certification.

How Much Does a Certified Surgical Technologist Make?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median annual salary for surgical technologists as of May 2019 was $48,300. This means that approximately half of the people in this profession made more than this amount and half made less. The pay for surgical technologists can range from approximately $33,420 to $71,400 per year. Advanced education and more experience may lead to better opportunities and pay.

The field of surgical technology is growing and is projected to continue to grow at a rate of approximately nine percent between 2018 and 2028. This is faster than average for all occupations. As people age, their potential need for surgery increases. At the same time, there are continual advances being made in medicine, leading to many opportunities for those interested in the surgical field.

Pros and Cons of Becoming a Surgical Technologist

There are both pros and cons to pursuing a career as a surgical technologist. Some pros include the fact that this can be a lucrative career that doesn’t require a four-year degree. Also, while some healthcare careers require many years of schooling, you can get started working as a surgical technologist in less than two years. You’ll never be bored since each day will be different than the one before. Your skills will be in demand in many different healthcare settings all over the country, in hospitals, outpatient clinics, doctors’ offices and some dentists’ offices.

Some aspects of the job can be physically demanding and occasionally high stress, which may be considered drawbacks to this career choice. You may need to lift heavy equipment or help move patients, and you’ll be on your feet for long periods of time. At times, you’ll be exposed to unpleasant odors, sights or communicable diseases. If these drawbacks don’t discourage you, you’ll find that working as a surgical technologist can be a very interesting and rewarding career.

Your Career as a Surgical Technologist

When you work as a surgical technologist, you may be expected to work weekends, holidays, nights and on call. Your shifts may last longer than eight hours. When you’re in the operating room or participating in an outpatient procedure, you’ll wear sterile masks, caps, gloves and gowns.

If you feel this is the right career for you, the best part will be knowing what a difference you are making in the lives of others, not only the patients but also by supporting the work of doctors and nurses. It’s a fulfilling and meaningful career with a good salary, making it a great choice for anyone who is fascinated by the operating room.