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What does a Surgical Nurse do?

A surgical nurse, also called a perioperative nurse, is a registered nurse (RN) who is trained to care for patients and assist the surgical team before, during, and after surgery. Pre-op care requires the nurse to prepare the patient both physically and emotionally for surgery.

During surgery, the “scrub” nurse monitors the patient’s vital signs, hands the instruments to the physician with precision and speed, and suctions blood and fluids. A circulating nurse manages the arena of the operating room, setting the “stage” by preparing the operating room for surgery and making sure conditions remain sterile during surgery. The recovery room nurse monitors the patient as the anesthesia wears off and attends to wound care.

surgical nurse

How to become a surgical nurse

Surgical nursing is an intense specialty due to the possibility of drama on the operating table. It is important that surgical nurses are highly skilled and levelheaded through long and complicated procedures and that they are able to reassure patients in stressful situations.

There are two undergraduate degrees that can lead to surgical nursing: Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN), a two-year program, and Bachelor of Nursing Science (BSN), a four-year program. Surgical nurses are also required to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). See the website of National Council of State Boards of Nursing for more information.

Although certification is not necessary, becoming a Certified Nurse in the Operating Room is a way to increase your competitive edge. See the Competency and Credentialing Institute website for specifics on the CNOR exam.

Job prospects for a surgical nurse

Surgical nurses work in a surgical unit in a hospital or in an outpatient or urgent care clinic that offers day surgery. Although there are no statistics for the job outlook for surgical nursing specifically, prospects for nursing in general are excellent according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS). Chances of being employed are excellent and hospitals often compete to offer more benefits and flexible hours to attract competent staff.

Salary varies by region and population density. Wages are lower in the South and East. A surgical nurse typically earns more than RNs doing general nursing work.

A surgical nurse with experience can move on to plastic surgery nursing, earning more money in private surgery centers. Further study and training can also lead to becoming a nurse anesthetist, where the median salary is far above other nursing specialties, according to Mayo Clinic School of Health Sciences career overview.

What does a Surgical Technician do?

A surgical technician works in operating rooms, assisting surgeons, anesthesiologists and circulating nurses to help carry out operations. They have to be knowledgeable, alert and detail-oriented, in that they play a central role in preparing patients for surgery and ensuring the doctor has all the tools and equipment he or she needs to safely complete a surgery.

The surgical technician prepares for the the operation by washing, shaving and disinfecting incision sites and moving patients into operating rooms. The surgical technologist may also be responsible for monitoring the patient’s heart rate, blood pressure and other vital signs, and help the surgeons don their sterile gowns and gloves.

During the surgery, the surgical technologist hands the surgeon the tools needed, anticipating the doctor’s needs and performing other helpful tasks, such as cutting sutures, holding retractors and keeping track of all the surgical equipment. When the operation is over, the surgical technician transfers the patient to recovery rooms, and then returns to restock and clean the operating room.

surgical technician

Educational requirements for surgical technicians

It takes anywhere from nine to 24 months to earn a certificate, diploma or associate degree in surgical technology. Educational programs are offered in many colleges and universities, as well as through hospitals and the military.

Surgical technicians study anatomy, pharmacology, microbiology, physiology and related medical subjects, and courses typically involve both classroom and clinical work. Most surgical technician graduates go on to earn their certification through the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting by passing a certification exam.

In addition to completing an accredited training program, you can qualify to take a certification exam by completing a hospital training program, which usually lasts about two years, or by acquiring seven years of on-the-job training.

Industries and special fields for surgical technicians

Most surgical technicians work for hospitals, although some work for outpatient surgical centers or in dental offices where surgery is conducted. Hospitals are using an increasing number of surgical technicians as they attempt to reduce health care costs by replacing higher-paid nurses who previously were needed in operating rooms.

Many surgical technicians advance in their profession by specializing in a certain type of surgery, such as neurosurgery or organ-transplant surgery. Some get additional training and move up to the role of first assistant in an operating room, and others advance their careers by going to work for insurance companies, medical supply services or companies that sell operating equipment.

Surgical technologists who receive special training in the latest medical equipment, including laser technology or fiber optics, are qualified to work on an increasing variety of surgeries and are in greater demand.

Job outlook for surgical technicians

The predicted volume of surgeries is expected to climb, and demand for surgical technicians is expected to grow 25 percent–much faster than average, the BLS said.

What does a Vocational Nurse do?

A vocational nurse, sometimes called a licensed vocational nurse (LVN) or licensed practical nurse (LPN), works with registered nurses to provide physical, emotional and spiritual care to patients. LVNs and LPNs receive the same training and pass the same licensure test; the only difference is the title.

In California and Texas, vocational nurses are called LVNs. In the other 48 states, nurses with similar training are called practical nurses or LPNs.

On the Job

A vocational nurse provides care under the direction of a registered nurse or physician. They administer medications, provide wound care, monitor body systems, keep patients comfortable, assist with activities of daily living (bathing, dressing, and feeding) and educate patients and families.

In some states, vocational nurses can start IVs. They often provide care for a group of patients and work closely with other vocational nurses, registered nurses and nursing assistants.

vocational nurse

Where Vocational Nurses Work

Vocational nurses work in a variety of settings. Most–28 percent–work in residential care facilities, such as nursing homes and assisted living settings. A vocational nurse can also work in medical clinics, hospitals, mental health facilities and patients’ homes. Some vocational nurses work in dental offices or optometrist offices.


Vocational nurses attend a one-year training course that’s typically offered at a community or vocational college. The course includes classroom work in the basic health sciences and nursing care. Clinical rotations are incorporated to give students real-life, hands-on experience with nursing skills such as administering medication, monitoring vital signs and juggling the care of two or more patients.

After graduation, students must pass the National Council Licensure Examination- Practical Nurse (NCLEX – PN) to become licensed. Vocational nurses must also meet the requirements of their state board of nursing to become eligible for employment.


Demand for vocational nurses is expected to grow by 21 percent, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Demand varies by geographic area and employment setting. Demand is particularly strong in the South and West; Texas, Florida, Louisiana and Arkansas employ many vocational nurses.

Nursing care facilities, clinics and home care agencies are expected to hire most vocational nurses in the future as care moves out of hospitals and the population ages. Wages are typically highest for vocational nurses who work with employment agencies or in nursing care facilities.