If you're considering a career in health care, you might have noticed that some professions seem to have a lot of the same duties. For example, surgical technologists and operating room nurses seem to do almost the same things during a surgical procedure. That's certainly true, as far as it goes. The difference is that surgical technologists do just one thing, while registered nurses are trained to provide a broad range of health-care services.
When you see a photo of the surgical team at work, you're often seeing surgical technologists. As a technologist you're responsible for the logistics of surgery, the practical details that make everyone else's job easier. You prepare and stock the operating room before the surgery, prepare and transfer the patient, and -- very important -- make sure you've got the right paperwork. During the surgery you'd either help the surgeon with instruments and sponges as needed, or circulate around the room and play a supporting role by bringing additional supplies, keeping records of the procedure or sending tissue samples to the lab.
There are registered nurses, known collectively as perioperative nurses, who perform all the same duties. However, registered nurses have a far broader scope of practice. For example, perioperative nurses can plan and provide the patient's postoperative care. They're also able to work in other areas such as critical care, pediatrics and obstetrics, to start IVs and administer medications, to supervise practical nurses and other support staff, and to supervise or administer entire departments. Comparing a nurse to a surgical technologist is like comparing your phone to a digital camera. Your phone can take pictures, but it also does much more.
Surgical technologists have a shorter training curve. Programs can last from 12 to 24 months, and award either a certificate or an associate degree. The curriculum covers basic medical terminology, surgical procedures, microbiology and related topics, and professional certification is available for those who want it. For registered nurses, an associate degree is the minimum qualification and bachelor's degrees or diplomas from hospital-affiliated nursing schools are preferred. Their curriculum is broader than a technologist's, with less focus on surgery and more on general health care and science topics. After graduation, RNs must pass a national certification exam before they can be licensed.
The employment picture is rosy for most health-care professions, according to job projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employment for surgical technologists is expected to grow by 19 percent between 2010 and 2020, faster than the 14 percent average for all U.S. occupations. Registered nurses can expect a 26 percent increase in jobs over the same decade. Ambitious technologists can take additional schooling to become surgical assistants and exercise more responsibility in the operating room; a few train further to become registered nurses or physician assistants. Nurses can earn specialty certifications in numerous fields, or can advance further by earning a graduate degree and becoming educators, anesthetists, administrators or nurse practitioners.
- American Medical Association: Health Care Careers Directory -- Surgical Technologist
- American Medical Association: Health Care Careers Directory -- Registered Nurse
- Nurses for a Healthier Tomorrow: Perioperative (O.R.) Nurse
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook -- Surgical Technologists
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook -- Registered Nurses
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.