How to Become a Certified Surgical Technologist
Become a key player on a surgical team when you earn your surgical technologist credential.
Educational Requirements for Surgical Technologist Certification
The best way to become a Certified Surgical Technologist (CST) is to earn a degree or certificate through a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) .
Accredited surgical technology programs make graduates more competitive in the job market by providing them with a solid medical background, thorough understanding of surgical procedures and the technical skills needed in an operating room. Programs may include the following courses:
- Hands-on training in sterilization techniques
- Surgery procedures
- Equipment handling
- Patient care and safety
Earning Your Surgical Technologist Certification
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the majority of employers seek surgical technologists who have passed a national certification exam, such as the one administered by the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting .
This comprehensive certification exam, a multiple-choice test taken on a computer, is open to anyone who has earned a CAAHEP- or ABHES-accredited degree from an institution. It covers the medical knowledge and skills required of competent entry-level technologists, including specific techniques in perioperative care, intra-operative care, post-operative care and basic science.
A passing grade on this exam qualifies you as a Certified Surgical Technologist (CST).
Earning Your Tech in Surgery-Certified (TS-C) Credential
Like the CST, this certification indicates knowledge in several science and medical topics, safety procedures and surgical skill areas. The National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT) offers this credential and tests for mastery medical terminology, infection control, antiseptic procedures and other key competencies.
Candidates can qualify to take this exam in one of three ways:
- Be enrolled in or complete an accredited surgical technology program
- Demonstrate three years of full-time experience as a surgical technologist within the past five years
- Complete surgical technology training or its equivalent during U.S. military service within the past five years
Those who pass the NCCT exam are designated as Tech in Surgery–Certified (TS-C).
Renewing Your Certification as a Surgical Technologist
After becoming a CST or TS-C, a certified surgical technician must keep her credential current. Mandatory renewal of CST certification involves the following:
Enrolling in continuing education classes
Re-taking the certification exam every four years
TS-C certification is renewed in the same manner every five years.
Surgical Tech Schools
Dozens of schools around the country, from Florida to Idaho, offer accredited programs in surgical technology. The credential generally requires 12 to 24 months to complete.
To gain admission to a surgical technologist program, you’ll need a high school diploma or GED. Depending on the school, you may also need to complete some classes in advance, such as basic math, biology and English classes. Other schools may have fewer or no prerequisites; be sure to ask the college you’re considering.
Because you’ll be interning in a patient care setting, surgical tech schools will require you to undergo a confidential background check and health screening after you’ve enrolled.
Surgical Tech School Coursework
The course of study for surgical technologists includes classroom instruction in the sciences, patient care, anatomy and surgical procedures. You’ll also get hands-on practice in clinical settings that prepare you to join a surgical team of doctors and registered nurses in an operating theater. As a student, you’ll get to see first-hand how surgery is performed, and learn how an operating team works together.
During your clinical internships, expect to assist in preparing the operating rooms prior to surgical procedures; sterilize the room both before and after procedures; and learn how to assist surgeons and nurses during actual operations.
Most programs will also include academic courses in communication, social sciences and quantitative reasoning. These skills provide a foundation for the technical prowess that you’ll gain in a surgical tech program.
Surgical Tech School Accreditation
A quality program will prepare you to sit for a national certification examination, such as the one offered by the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting.
To sit for that exam, you’ll need to earn a surgical tech credential offered by either of these two institutions:
- Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs – AAHEP
- Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools – ABHES
Before you enroll in any surgical technology school, confirm that it is accredited by one of these two agencies.
When calculating the cost of school, be sure to include fees for books and supplies as well as tuition. Depending on the surgical tech program you choose, the tuition can range from $6500 for a one-year course to double that cost for longer programs. Expect to spend more if you enroll as an out-of-state student.
What Does a Certified Surgical Technologist Do?
Once known as the “invisible profession,” CSTs have been depicted in movies and TV shows as just a pair of hands doling out instruments in response to a surgeon’s barked commands.
Although proper instrument handling is an important part of the job, CSTs do so much more than that. Working as an integral member of a surgical team, they set the stage for an operation and advocate for their patients’ safety and comfort.
Before an operation, whether it’s a liver transplant or a knee replacement, the CST prepares the sterile supplies and checks all equipment to see that it’s in proper working order. During an operation, it’s commonly the CST’s job to operate suction machines, sterilizers, lights and diagnostic equipment.
A surgical technologist is often the person who greets the patient when she arrives for surgery. Beyond checking charts and vital signs, the CST provides emotional support to an often anxious patient. Writing in The Surgical Technologist, CST Shondra McGill describes how she shows compassion during out-patient procedures by playing upbeat music, holding her patients’ hands and talking with them throughout the operation.
For more complex surgeries during which the patient is sedated, the CST positions them properly on the operating table, drapes the patient and prepares the incision site. The technologist takes the lead on maintaining a sterile field at all times, helping other team members into sterile gloves and gowns and monitoring them to be sure they follow aseptic technique.
The CST is usually the person who passes instruments, sponges and sutures during surgery. But she doesn’t just react to commands; a good CST will anticipate a surgeon’s needs, working efficiently to provide prompt access to sterile items.
During an operation, the surgical technologist might also connect drains and tubing; prepare specimens for analysis; hold retractors and instruments; and sponge or suction the operative site. Following surgery, they dress the patient’s wounds and prepare the operating room for the next patient.
Salary & Job Outlook
Through 2026, the profession is anticipated to grow at a rate of 12% annually
Median Annual Salary
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts strong demand for Certified Surgical Technologists. Through 2026, the profession is anticipated to grow at a rate of 12 percent annually—much faster than average. The BLS reports the median pay for a surgical technologist as $46,310 per year.
Becoming a First Surgical Assistant
Some CSTs advance in the field by completing additional education and training. For example, they commonly progress to the position of first surgical assistant, also known as surgical assistant . These professionals might specialize in specific branches of surgery, such as cardiothoracic, neurosurgery, orthopedic or vascular. Most first assistants work in hospitals, but others work directly for private physicians or surgical groups. Some are even self-employed.
The NBSTSA offers a national certification exam specifically for first surgical assistants. As of January 2017, any new applicant to sit for the Certified Surgical First Assistant (CSFA) exam must be a graduate of a Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs accredited program in surgical assisting.
A surgical technologist who earns NBSTSA certification officially becomes a certified first assistant (CFA). The National Surgical Assistant Association (NSAA) also offers a certified surgical assistant (CSA) credential, which is earned by passing a written, oral and practical certification exam.
Take the Next Step
If you thrive in a team setting that combines hands-on care, attention to detail and an appreciation for the medical field, surgical technology might be your next career move. The job prospects are bright, and the certification is do-able in just two years or less. Start searching for the program that’s right for you.
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6 Reasons for Becoming a Surgical Tech in 2019 and Beyond
By Callie Malvik
You’ve decided you’re done dodging questions from family and friends about your dead-end job. You’re ready for something better; something to launch your career and allow you to make a difference. You’re interested in making a name for yourself in the healthcare industry—and becoming a surgical technologist sounds like it might be the perfect fit.
Surgical technologists go by many titles: Surgical tech, operating room technician, scrub tech or surgical assistant. But regardless of what you call them, they all play an integral role on the operating room team.
But what exactly do surgical technologists do? And more importantly, is becoming a surgical tech worth your time and energy? Keep reading to learn some facts that may help you answer your question.
What does a surgical tech do?
You have a vague understanding of what a surgical technologist position involves, but let’s take a closer look at the details. Just as the jobs titles vary, a surgical tech’s responsibilities cover a wide range of duties. Their responsibilities include tasks to prep for surgery, tasks during the surgery and post-surgery tasks.
It is typically the surgical tech’s job to prepare both the patient and the operating room for surgeries. This includes sterilizing the equipment and ensuring there are adequate supplies in the operating room before the surgeon begins. They also help prep the patients by cleansing and disinfecting any incision areas.
During the surgery, surgical techs assist the surgeons by handing them instruments at their request. They may help by holding organs in place or using retractors during the surgery. Once the procedure is completed, they are responsible for helping dress the wound and transferring patients into recovery rooms.
About 71 percent of surgical techs worked in hospitals in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).1 Other possible work environments include outpatient centers or the offices of physicians who perform outpatient surgery.
Now that you have a better understanding of the typical roles and responsibilities of surgical techs, you’re ready to get to the good stuff: What’s in it for you?
6 Reasons to consider becoming a surgical tech
How long does it take to become a surgical tech? What does the future look like for the field? And how much does a surgical tech make? These are all logical questions to ask when contemplating this career.
You’ll find all those answers and more below. Here are six compelling reasons to consider a career as a surgical technologist:
1. You can enter the field quickly
Many healthcare careers require several years of schooling before being qualified to start working. Fortunately, this isn’t the case for surgical techs. Most employers require a postsecondary Certificate or Associate’s degree to work in this position.
Surgical tech programs vary in length, but most have their students trained and graduated in two years or fewer.2 This means you could be scrubbing in for your first surgery in just a couple of years.
2. Job opportunities are on the rise
Stagnant or declining employment opportunities aren’t something you’ll have to worry about with a surgical technologist career. The BLS projects employment in this field to grow at the faster-than-average rate of 12 percent through 2026.1
But what’s the reason behind the growth? Surgical procedures are being performed more frequently than ever as a result of the advancements in surgical technology. The BLS also attributes this growth to the aging baby boomer generation. This population is expected to require more attention from healthcare professionals in coming years, resulting in an uptick in surgical procedures.
3. You’ll have above-average earning potential
Less time in school generally equates to less money spent on courses. This is an obvious advantage for aspiring surgical techs, but the financial benefits don’t end there.
Once employed in the field, you can expect to earn a healthy compensation for your work. The BLS reports that the median annual surgical tech salary in 2017 was $46,310.1 This number sits comfortably above the average for all occupations, which was $37,690 in 2017.
4. You can work anywhere
As mentioned above, most surgical techs are employed in hospitals. Hospitals are located in every area across the country; and every hospital has surgeons who perform surgical procedures. What does this mean for surgical technologists? There are employment opportunities country-wide.
This means you won’t have to relocate to a specific region just to find a job. Whether you want to work in a big city or a rural area, on the east coast, the west coast or anywhere in between, you can find employment as a surgical tech.
5. You won’t get bored
If you’re the type of person who gets jaded sitting at a desk and performing the same tasks day after day, you’ll be relieved to hear that is a far cry from reality for a surgical technologist. This position will keep you on-the-move all day long.
No two days are the same for a surgical tech, either. Even for those who specialize in assisting for the same type of surgery , each patient and procedure will vary from the next. Surgeries do not always go by the book, which means you’ll need to stay on your toes and be prepared for whatever happens. These high-pressure scenarios make for an exciting career.
6. You’ll make a difference every day
Earning a decent paycheck is important, but you also want to make a difference when you clock into work each day. Lucky for you, a surgical tech career comes with a high level of satisfaction and higher meaning. How fulfilling is it to know you’re helping improve patients’ lives during each and every shift?
“Becoming a surgical tech is a great career choice. When you leave work every day, you know you have made a difference in someone’s life,” says Nicole Rescorla, surgical technologist at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America .
Ready to reap the rewards of becoming a surgical tech?
So, is becoming a surgical tech worth it? The choice is ultimately yours. But if you’re looking for an exciting and rewarding way to fill a gap in the healthcare field, this could be the career you’ve been seeking.
If you’re intrigued and wondering if you have what it takes to become a surgical tech, check out our article, “ 6 Signs You Should Consider Becoming a Surgical Technologist .”
1Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [career information accessed August 7, 2018]. Salary ranges represent national, averaged earnings for the occupations listed and include workers at all levels of education and experience. Ranges do not represent starting salaries and employment conditions in your area may vary.
2Time to completion is dependent on the number of transfer credits accepted and courses completed each term.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in September 2014. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2018. Insight from Nicole Rescorla remains from original article.
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Callie is the Content Manager at Collegis Education, overseeing blog content on behalf of Rasmussen College. She is passionate about creating quality resources that empower others to improve their lives through education.
Posted in Surgical Technologist
- healthcare careers
- surgical technologist
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