Guide to Becoming a Surgical Nurse

Overview

Surgical nurse assisting the surgeon during an operation

A surgical nurse is the backbone of a surgical team. Surgical nurses work in a dynamic and challenging environment, taking a key role in life-saving surgical procedures and the surrounding care. Because nursing professionals at practically any level are able to take on roles as surgical nurses, their day-to-day duties vary according to their level of expertise.

  • A licensed practical nurse (LPN) typically handles preoperative and post-operative care, including starting IVs, assisting patients with bathing and dressing, and providing bedside care during recovery.
  • In the operating room, registered nurses (RNs) or advanced practice nurses assist the surgical team and coordinate all room activity.

Surgical nurses are also responsible for educating patients on procedures prior to surgery, adjusting treatment plans, and teaching them about post-operative self-care. 

The opportunities for a career in surgical nursing are diverse and rewarding. Surgical nurses specialize in any or all aspects of surgery, and many work in sub-specialties such as cardiac surgery, intensive care, or pediatric surgery. Doctors rely on these dedicated professionals who touch countless lives and bring about positive improvements in the health and welfare of patients and their families.

Work Environment

Traditionally, a surgical nurse works in a general care inpatient hospital. However, cost-efficient trends in health care and advances in surgical technology are providing more opportunities for these professionals to work in physicians' offices and ambulatory surgery centers.

The majority of surgeries performed are “elective,” meaning they are medically necessary, but not urgent in nature. Because elective surgeries are often pre-scheduled for the daytime, surgical nurses typically work during the day and through the evening hours. Nurses employed by inpatient hospital units usually work overnight as well. Shifts run anywhere from eight to twelve hours long, and some surgical nurses are on “standby” and ready to work at a moment's notice.

Requirements

Education

The educational requirements for a surgical nurse vary according to the professional level that the nursing candidate seeks to obtain.

Becoming a licensed practical nurse (LPN) requires completion of a twelve-month diploma or certificate program, available at some community colleges, vocational high schools, and health career academies. The LPN curriculum includes essential topics such as anatomy and physiology, as well as skills practice and training in real-world clinical settings under an instructor's supervision.

Registered nurses (RNs) attend college and obtain either a two-year associate's degree or a four-year bachelor's degree in nursing. Coursework and preparation for a nursing degree includes academic prerequisites such as English or math, life sciences, and nursing-specific classes such as pharmacology, medical terminology, patient assessment, and care planning. These candidates also receive skills training in a laboratory environment and clinical practice in a range of health care settings.

A graduate education is necessary to become an advanced practice nurse. These programs are structured as master's degrees or doctor of nursing practice degrees. Nursing experience and an active RN license are required for admission to most programs, and the curriculum is specifically designed for the advanced practice specialty.

Visit our nursing degree guide for information about all of these degree paths, from the associate level to master's degrees.

Training

Nurses with little or no experience are trained in surgery basics in an inpatient hospital surgery unit. To go into surgical critical care, the operating room, or the recovery room, background surgical experience is typically required prior to training for a period of weeks or months in the specific setting.

Licensing and/or Certification

All practicing nurses must hold a valid state license. This license is obtained after the completion of nursing education, by passing a licensing examination called the NCLEX, which is administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing. Detailed information about licensing requirements is available through each state's nursing board.

The process of certification is optional for some surgical nurses and mandatory for others. A number of surgery specialty certifications are available for RNs, including adult cardiac surgery, plastic surgery, and intensive care. These can be obtained through professional organizations such as the Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses and the American Society of Plastic Surgical Nurses.

Advanced practice nurses must be certified in their area of expertise before beginning their careers.

Necessary Skills and Qualities

At all professional levels, a successful surgical nurse possesses empathy for patients, especially when it comes to pain management. Nearly all patients experience some pain or discomfort after surgery, and a nurse must monitor patients carefully to create and manage an effective pain control regimen.

Skilled surgical nurses have the ability to think critically. They are alert to subtle changes in patients' behaviors or symptoms that help them detect surgical complications, such as bleeding or infection. Excellent communication skills are essential, as nurses are often the primary caregivers for surgical patients and must communicate with fellow health team members as well as the patients and their families.

Opportunities for Advancement

There is considerable room for advancement in the world of surgical nursing. LPNs with surgical roles can become RNs by advancing their education—usually through an LPN-to-RN bridge program available through community colleges and four-year universities.

RNs who begin working in a general post-surgery care unit are able to move among surgical specialties in a hospital or ambulatory surgery, such as the operating room, recovery room, or intensive care unit. They may also obtain a graduate education, making them eligible to become clinical nurse specialists with a surgical focus, or nurse practitioners who assist surgeons during procedures. Becoming a certified registered nurse anesthetist is an especially popular choice for specialization among surgical nurses.

If you would like to gain the necessary education to become a surgical nurse, we highly recommend that you check out our free School Finder Tool located HERE.

Salary

In 2013, the annual wage range for LPNs reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics was $31,300 to $58,020 (the median wages for the bottom 10% and top 10% of earners). That same year, RNs and advanced practice RNs earned between $45,630 and $126,250. As a general rule, nurses with bachelor's or master's degrees earn higher salaries, and those who work in major cities usually make more than nurses in rural areas.

Job Outlook

There will always be a need for skilled surgical nurses, and the demand for nursing services has historically increased. With many older nurses expected to leave the workforce between 2012 and 2022, opportunities for LPNs and RNs are projected to grow substantially - by 25 percent and 19 percent, respectively, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. With technology and research allowing more seniors in the rapidly expanding aging population to undergo surgery for a greater number of medical conditions, the need for surgical nurses will also increase proportionally.

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Also, check out our Health Careers page for more career guides.

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