Sterile Processing Technician Vs. Surgical Technologist

Surgical technologists can assist at the table, or while circulating through the operating room.
i Jupiterimages/Polka Dot/Getty Images
Surgical technologists can assist at the table, or while circulating through the operating room.

High-profile surgeons might be the most visible members of the surgical team, but they can't work effectively without the help of many other skilled professionals. These include both surgical technologists to assist during procedures, and support staff such as sterile processing technicians to take care of the logistical details. If you like the idea of helping save lives but can't afford to spend half your life in medical training, both of those professions might be a good career choice.

Sterile Processing Technicians

Some of the instruments and supplies used by surgeons are disposable, but many aren't. Every reusable instrument or piece of equipment needs to be sterilized before it can be used again, and that's what sterile processing technicians do. You'd disassemble instruments if necessary, inspect them for wear or damage that might make them unserviceable, then clean them, reassemble them and sterilize them. You'll also be responsible for maintaining the inventory of supplies and instruments, organizing and issuing them as needed for surgical procedures.

Surgical Technologsts

If you opt to become a surgical technologist, your work begins where the processing technician's ends. You'll be responsible for ordering appropriate quantities of supplies and instruments from the processing technicians, and setting them up the way your surgeon prefers. You'll prepare the operating room to make sure it's clean and sanitary, and help prepare and transport the patient. During the procedure you might either assist at the operating table, or circulate in the operating room to monitor the patient's condition and helps maintain a count of all pads or sponges used during the procedure, to ensure none are left behind.

Similarities and Differences

Both processing technicians and surgical technologists play vital roles on the surgical team, but their positions are very different. Sterile processing technicians have no direct patient contact. Their role is largely administrative and technical, and requires a focused, detail-oriented personality. Surgical technologists play a more hands-on role, helping prepare patients before surgery and helping monitor their condition afterward. They play an active role in the surgery itself, as well as helping with the practical details of preparing the room and instruments.


Training programs for sterile processing technicians are shorter than for most other health care professions. Most programs take one year or less, so it's a good choice if you can't manage an extended college education. O*Net Online reports a median wage of $30,050 a year for processing technicians, with job growth close to the 14 percent average for all occupations. Surgical technologists usually earn a one-year certificate or two-year associate degree from a vocational or community college, a military training program or a teaching hospital. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a median income of $39,920 for surgical technologists, and average job growth.

2016 Salary Information for Surgical Technologists

Surgical technologists earned a median annual salary of $45,160 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, surgical technologists earned a 25th percentile salary of $36,980, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $55,030, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 107,700 people were employed in the U.S. as surgical technologists.

the nest