Surgical Technologist vs. Sterile Processing Technician

For a career in healthcare that does not require a four-year degree you have more options than you may realize. Without a lot of background knowledge it can be hard to understand what these careers are, and they may seem very similar. There are important differences, though, for example between a surgical tech and a sterile processing tech. Find out what these careers are, how they are similar and how they are different, and you will be ready to make a smart choice for your future.

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What is a Surgical Technologist?

A surgical technologist, or surgical tech, is an allied healthcare professional who works alongside surgical teams to ensure greater patient safety. They are responsible for preparing the operating room and the patient before a surgical procedure. They assist during surgeries by handing tools and supplies to surgeons, nurses and surgical first assistants. After surgeries they may finish up with the patient and re-sterilize the room and equipment.

Surgical techs are vital members of the surgical team, because they are responsible for maintaining a sterile environment and for ensuring the surgeon has everything he or she needs to perform a procedure. This is a hands-on job that will have you working directly with patients and doctors.

What is a Sterile Processing Technician?

A sterile processing technician has an even more specific role in the healthcare environment. This professional is responsible for cleaning and sterilizing medical equipment and supplies. They also work to maintain sterility in a healthcare setting. Unlike a surgical technologist, the sterile processing tech does not work directly with patients. They are behind the scenes but play a crucial role in patient safety. Other names for this job position include medical equipment preparer, central service technician and central processing technician.

Typical Duties

Some of the usual daily duties for a surgical technologist are:

  • Getting the operating room and the patient ready for procedures
  • Sterilizing equipment
  • Gathering supplies for the procedure
  • Passing instruments to the surgeon during procedures
  • Inventory supplies
  • Transferring patients after surgery

A sterile processing tech is also responsible for sterility but does not work hands-on with patients. Some typical duties include:

  • Cleaning medical instruments and equipment
  • Operating decontamination equipment
  • Examining equipment and instruments to determine if they need further cleaning
  • Reporting issues with sterilization and cleaning
  • Organizing and inventorying sterile supplies
  • Disposing of waste material

Work Environment

The largest numbers of both sterile processing techs and surgical techs are employed by hospitals. They may also work for physician or dental offices as well as outpatient surgery centers. Both types of healthcare professionals may be hired by medical staffing services, which will send them to temporary jobs as needed. These workers are traveling techs. Unlike surgical technologists, sterile processing techs may work for medical equipment manufacturing companies rather than medical centers.

Training and Education

For either career, the training and education required depends mostly on individual employers. It is possible to get certified in either career, but most states do not require this for employment. Most surgical technologists need to complete a certificate or associate degree program, which take one to two years to complete. They then get certified through the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting. Many employers prefer to hire techs that have had this training and are certified.

Sterile processing technicians can also go to school and are more likely to earn a certificate or diploma, which may take between six and 18 months to complete. Certification for these professionals is through the International Association of Healthcare Central Service Material Management. Certification is not always required, but many employers would rather hire those candidates who have it.

Salaries and Career Outlook

Most healthcare careers are growing, especially careers in allied healthcare like these two. More hospitals and medical centers are hiring these professionals to improve patient safety and to maximize cost savings. For instance, careers in surgical technology are growing across the country at a rate of 12 percent, much faster than average job growth.

Salaries are a little higher for surgical techs, which reflects longer training requirements and more varied duties on the job. The median pay in 2017 was $22.26 per hour and $46,310 per year.  For sterile processing techs, hourly rates were closer to $15.

Both careers in surgical technology and sterile processing are important for patient safety. Both have an impact and make a difference in the lives of patients every day. The big differences are in the interface with patients, the degree of training and the salaries. Both are rewarding careers that you can feel good about.

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