November 15, 2023
If the idea of working on a surgical team excites you, you might be exploring different types of roles within this area of healthcare. Two roles that are essential for keeping an operating room running smoothly are the scrub nurse and the surgical technician. But what’s the difference?
In California, the role of “scrub assistant” (or the person handing the surgeon tools and performing technical support tasks during surgery) can be filled by either a licensed nurse or a surgical technologist. Some surgical teams may have just one role while others may include both, depending on the hospital or healthcare organization's staffing resources and what it deems necessary for assistance.
While scrub nurses and surgical techs may share some similar duties, these two roles are in fact different in terms of the scope of their duties, their educational paths and their licensure requirements. Below we provide an overview of what each job entails and how to enter into that role in California.
A scrub nurse is a licensed nurse who assists the surgeon in the operating room. A scrub nurse falls under the category of a perioperative nurse, who is also known as a surgical nurse or operating room (OR) nurse.
Scrub nurses’ duties include preoperative, operative and postoperative tasks that cover everything from sterilizing the operating room and surgical tools to assisting the surgeon with technical tasks during a procedure (such as collecting medical samples or administering medication) to monitoring patients’ health in the post-op phase.
Because scrub nurses are either licensed vocational nurses (LVNs) or registered nurses (RNs), they are able to perform a wider range of medical tasks than surgical technologists, particularly tasks that focus on patient care.
Here is a more comprehensive list of typical scrub nurse duties:
Because scrub nurses are licensed nurses, they also have the ability to provide nursing care outside of surgical units, such as in general care or other specialized units.
Keep in mind that a scrub nurse is just one type of perioperative nurse. There are also circulating nurses (registered nurses) who work outside the operating room to coordinate with the patient’s family members and the outside healthcare team.
Similar to scrub nurses, surgical technologists also assist with preoperative, operative and postoperative tasks. Their jobs are heavily focused on preparing operating rooms, sanitizing surgical equipment, managing the inventory of surgical supplies/equipment and helping surgical procedures flow more smoothly.
While surgical techs may have some interaction with patients (i.e., ensuring the patient is properly dressed for surgery and positioning them on the operating table), they do not perform tasks like recording patients’ medical histories, taking and monitoring patients’ vitals or administering medication.
Here is a more comprehensive list of typical surgical technologist duties:
Education is a key difference between scrub nurses and surgical techs.
To become a scrub nurse, you have to become an LVN or RN and you usually need at least a few years of experience working in patient care.
In California, you can take your RN licensure exam after completing one of the following types of programs or meeting the alternative criteria:
In California, you can take your LVN licensure exam if you meet one of the following requirements:
See the California Board of Vocational Nursing’s website for more information about LVN requirements.
To become a surgical technologist, you will generally need to complete a post-secondary training program, such as a certificate program or a surgical tech associate degree program, as this is what employers are usually looking for.
If you want to take the extra step of being certified — passing the Certified Surgical Technologist (CST) exam — you will need to enroll in a program that is accredited by the the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) and/or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES).
American Career College’s Surgical Technology program is ABHES-accredited and requires all students to take the CST examination as a requirement for graduation. The cost of the CST exam is included in your tuition.
To become a licensed nurse and ultimately a scrub nurse, you will have to pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) or the National Council Licensure Examination for Practical Nursing (NCLEX-PN) before becoming licensed in California.
To further demonstrate their knowledge and skill in the area of perioperative care, a nurse can also undergo continuing education and obtain specialized certifications such as the Certified Perioperative Nurse (CNOR) credential or the Medical-Surgical Nursing Certification (MEDSURG-BC). Certification requirements vary by employer.
As for surgical techs, there are no licensing or certification requirements in California. You do, however, have the option to become certified through the national Certified Surgical Technologist (CST) examination. While it is not a requirement for working as a surgical tech in this state, becoming a CST can help demonstrate your depth of knowledge and skill and help you stand out to potential employers. There may also be some employers who require certification.
ACC offers a Surgical Technology program that allows you to earn your associate degree so you can pursue a career as a surgical tech. Here’s what you need to know about the program:
Learn more about ACC’s Surgical Technology program and apply today!
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