How to Become an Operating Room Technician
There's a good reason why the operating room provides such compelling material for TV shows and films: in reality, surgery is a dramatic, high-stakes and intense field of medicine in which the importance of teamwork cannot be overstressed. The vital duties of operating room technicians place them in the operating room before, during and after the surgeons' and nurses' participation.
Also known as a surgical technician or technologist (depending on education and experience), an operating room technician enjoys the following duties:
- Preparing the operating room
- Making sure all necessary supplies and surgical tools are sterile and ready
- Keeping track of all items used during surgery to make sure nothing gets misplaced
- Providing other assistance during the operation
- Delivering the patient to recovery
- Cleaning up the operating room after surgery
These important responsibilities, among others, directly contribute to the success of surgical operations.
The work environment for an operating room technician (or ORT) is naturally the operating room - or "rooms", to be more accurate, since hospitals and surgical centers commonly have several of them. Ideally there is one ORT per operating room. These technicians typically participate in a few surgical procedures each day, a schedule that keeps ORTs mostly on their feet - recently recognized as a true health benefit!
ORTs may also take samples recovered during surgery to another part of the hospital, typically the pathology department.
Technically a high school diploma or GED satisfies the qualifications for a candidate to enter the necessary training programs and become an ORT. However, earning an associate’s or bachelor’s degree usually makes an operating room technician more desirable to employers, not to mention better positioned for opportunities that come along over the years. Whether the prospective technicians major in a science or not, all types of laboratory courses are appropriate.
Junior, community and vocational colleges all offer programs in operating room technology. Large hospitals additionally offer training programs quite often. Training lasts for one or two years, sometimes including other aspects of medical technology. For ORT programs, students must learn medical terminology, physiology, and bacteriology including sterilization methods. Programs that include an internship or field placement can help the ORT gain not just knowledge but also experience. Students should aim to enroll in programs that the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) accredit.
Licensing and/or Certification
The National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA) oversees all aspects of the surgical technology national certification examination, including developing the exams, administering the exams, and establishing the policies for eligibility to take the exam. Candidates who pass the exam are declared Certified Surgical Technicians (CSTs). Certification is good for four years. If a CST earns at least 60 continuing education (CE) credits during those four years, their credential is automatically renewed for another four years. If not enough CE credits are accrued, a CST must re-take the national certification exam.
Continuing education is highly stressed in this occupation because surgical techniques and OR (operating room) practices are constantly evolving - a very appealing aspect of the career. The Association of Surgical Technologists (AST) offers multiple opportunities for gaining CE credits, including forums, webinars, workshops and attendance at the annual AST national conference. Technicians must be members of AST to take advantage of these opportunities. In exchange, AST maintains a continuing education file for each of its members and communicates to the NBSTSA which members have earned renewal of their certification.
Necessary Skills and Qualities
Even when a surgical operation is “routine”, it is never trivial. The standard for performance is set high, and there is quite understandably little to no tolerance in the OR for careless mistakes or inattentiveness - a patient's life is in the hands of the surgical team. ORTs, along with all other operating room personnel, learn to manage stress and thrive within these expectations. While much of this is gained from experience, level-headedness and solid organizational skills are required from day one. The operating room technician always remains focused and attentive to details. Curiosity and a love of learning further help the ORT engage in their plentiful continuing education opportunities.
Opportunities for Advancement
CSTs with experience and leadership ability can become OR managers, or move into supervision of various medical technicians within a hospital or surgical center. Some move into managing the hospital central supply system or managing all sterile processing. They may also end up becoming surgical technician educators or being sales representatives for medical and surgical device manufacturers.
There were roughly 93,600 ORT jobs in the U.S. in 2010, according to the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. With baby boomers aging, the number of surgeries is increasing and expected to grow by 25% through 2018. This makes surgical technology one of the most rapidly growing professions in the country.