How to Become a Surgical Nurse

Learn how to specialize as a Surgical Nurse, including the education and certifications you’ll need

Team of medical professionals during surgery

The Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses (AMSN) reports that Medical-Surgical Nursing is the single largest nursing specialty in the U.S. The specialized nurses in this expansive field work in various healthcare settings, including hospitals and outpatient centers, to care for patients who are preparing for or recovering from surgery.

More than 40 million major surgeries are performed annually in the U.S. Some of the most common surgeries include appendectomy, cesarean section, coronary artery bypass, mastectomy, and tonsillectomy. Surgical Nurses play a critical role on the surgical teams that perform all of these life-changing surgeries.

This article serves as a comprehensive guide to help you learn about the role of a Surgical Nurse, common duties, required skills, expected salary*, and job outlook. We’ll also review the steps you’ll need to take to become an RN and earn one of the designated certifications for this specialty.

To learn more about starting your career as an RN, click here to learn how to become a Registered Nurse. You can also read about other popular nursing careers by exploring the different types of hospital nursing jobs.

Surgical Nurse Definition

What is a Surgical Nurse?

Surgical Nurses assist surgeons in the operating room during procedures relating to a wide variety of medical issues or conditions. They also help to prepare and care for patients before and after their surgeries. Different types of Surgical Nurses include Scrub Techs, Circulating Nurses, and RN First Assistants (RNFA). Keep reading to learn more about each of these roles and the additional training and certification needed.

Surgical Nurse: Job Description

What Does a Surgical Nurse Do?

Surgical Nurses are specialized nurses who have completed extensive training in the area of surgeries that take place in the operating room. They have also earned one or more certifications to demonstrate their medical-surgical knowledge, commitment, and credibility. This is important because they are relied on as valuable members of the surgical team who must be able to work efficiently in the operating room and react appropriately to emergency situations.

As a Surgical Nurse, you may assist in many types of surgeries—from a cesarean section in a labor and delivery center to a coronary artery heart bypass in a specialized hospital. Note that your actual job description and the surgeries you assist with will vary depending on your employer and the type of facility you work in. Following are some of the roles you might perform.

In the traditional Surgical Nursing role, sometimes called a Scrub Tech, you’ll help set up the operating room and ensure the tools and instruments are sterile and properly placed. Then during surgeries, you’ll hand the appropriate tools to the surgeon and assist with other tasks like marking incision sites, applying sponges, or helping to close wounds.

The Circulating Nurse is an RN who assists indirectly with the patient’s surgery, handling documentation, reporting progress, delivering additional supplies as needed, and assisting other team members. They serve as patient advocates, helping to educate and prepare them for what to expect. They also update family members in the surgery waiting room.

Another role is that of RN First Assistant or RNFA. In this position, which requires additional training and certification, you will monitor a patient’s vital signs during surgery and assist the surgeons and other medical personnel in stabilizing patients when necessary.

With each of these Surgical Nursing roles, the ability to work together and communicate well with other surgical team members is absolutely essential. You’ll rely on skills like attention to detail, organizational skills, and critical thinking on a daily basis (more on this later).

Surgical Nurse Duties

Besides preparing the operating room for surgery, your job duties will include assisting both surgeons and anesthetists during surgery. You’ll also be in charge of other tasks to help patients as they recover post-surgery. A comprehensive set of duties to support your patients may include other tasks like:

  • Prepare patients for procedures and maintain intravenous therapy
  • Assist surgeons with instruments and tools during surgical procedures
  • Manage patient pain relief and monitor patient response
  • Establish care plans for ICU, CCU, cardiac, and neurological patients
  • Help perform technical duties, maintaining scopes and equipment
  • Provide quality patient-focused care for surgery recovery and rehabilitation
  • Communicate effectively with patients facing life-changing diagnoses

Close up of surgical nurse

Surgical Nurse Skills

Some essential qualities for a Surgical Nurse to acquire include empathy, compassion, and professionalism. But you’ll also want to continually develop your knowledge and training to stay up to date on the latest surgical techniques and nursing practices. Some of the most important skills to develop include:

Communication: Surgical Nurses must be precise communicators, not only in the operating room, but also in other settings with patients, doctors, and other healthcare professionals. After surgeries, you’ll need to leave patients with a clear understanding of their discharge instructions, limitations, and instructions on how to care for themselves at home.

Technical Expertise: Surgeons and anesthesiologists depend on Surgical Nurses to be ready to perform specific tasks at any point during surgery—both expected and unexpected. Whether assisting with the positioning of a patient, operating medical equipment, or suturing an incision, strong technical skills are a must.

Organization: Most surgeries require different mayo stand and back table setups. Different tools and instruments are required for a liver transplant compared to a hip replacement. Besides OR tools, Surgical Nurses also organize documents, reporting, supplies, patient scheduling, and coordinate with various healthcare professionals and departments.

Critical Thinking: The operating room requires critical thinking at all times—both in routine surgeries where everything goes as planned, and in urgent situations where surgical teams must work together to solve unexpected issues quickly.

Where Do Surgical Nurses Work?

Surgical Nurses work in any setting where surgeries occur, including hospitals, private practices, ambulatory settings, outpatient surgery centers, and plastic surgery centers. They work in multiple environments, including operating rooms, recovery rooms, in physician’s offices, and in patient rooms.

The type of surgeries a Surgical Nurse can assist in range from general surgeries to orthopedic, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, neurosurgery, reconstructive/cosmetic, and even organ transplant surgeries. Depending on the type of facility you work in, you may work with surgeons who specialize in a specific medical area of expertise, such as an orthopedic surgery practice.

Surgical Nurse Schooling & Certification

How Long Does it Take to Become a Surgical Nurse?

What Degree Do You Need to Be a Surgical Nurse?

Following are the typical steps to specializing as a Surgical Nurse, including schooling, licensing, and some of the common certifications.

1. Earn a Nursing Degree

To become a Surgical Nurse, you’ll first need to attend a nursing school, either by enrolling in a two-year ADN program or a four-year BSN program (note that the accelerated BSN Program at Eagle Gate College can be completed in three years).

2. Pass the NCLEX-RN Exam

Once you’ve graduated from your nursing program, you’ll prepare for and take the NCLEX-RN exam (National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses) to become licensed as an RN. This exam is administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN). Their website offers candidates information about the exam, its format, and study aids to help you prepare for the exam.

Group of medical students in a hallway

3. Complete a Certification Program

After obtaining your license and starting your nursing career, you’ll need to gain experience in a perioperative practice or hospital before seeking certification. Usually, a minimum of 2 years of experience is required before applying. You can pursue several certifications, including:

  • Certified Medical-Surgical Registered Nurse (CMSRN)
  • Certified Foundational Perioperative Nurse (CFPN)
  • Certified Ambulatory Surgery Nurse (CNAMB)
  • Certified Perioperative Nurse (CNOR)
  • Registered Nurse First Assistant (RNFA) *requires CNOR

4. Continue Your Training and Education

Even after obtaining one or more of the certifications above, you’ll continue to advance your education and training throughout your career. First, you will need to periodically recertify to maintain your credentials (see each certifying body for information on recertification). You may also choose to enroll in continuing education programs that will increase your knowledge regarding the latest surgical techniques, tools and equipment, and new medications.

You may also choose to join an organization like AMSN, the professional association for medical-surgical nurses. A community of more than 10,000 Medical-Surgical Nurses enjoy membership in AMSN, which promotes professional development, certification, and advocacy.

Surgical Nurse Salary

How Much Do Surgical Nurses Make?

Although the BLS doesn’t report salary* data specifically for Surgical Nurses, they report that the average salary* for all Registered Nurses is about $83,000 per year, or roughly $40 per hour.

Note that your exact salary* as a Surgical Nurse will vary based on your geographic location, level of education, and experience.

Surgical Nurse Job Outlook

What is the Job Outlook for Surgical Nurses?

As with salary* data, the BLS doesn’t report job outlook data specifically for Surgical Nurses, but they project that employment of all Registered Nurses will grow by 6% from 2021 to 2031. This means that over 200,000 job openings will become available each year. Some of the demand is due to the ongoing nursing shortage, while additional jobs will be created by those who transfer to different occupations or retire from the workforce.

Surgical Nurses may also find opportunities for advancement, including positions such as a head nurse, assistant director, educator, or director of nursing. Some leadership positions may require a graduate degree in nursing.

Consider Specializing as a Surgical Nurse

Now that you’ve read about how to become a Surgical Nurse, including some of the common duties, average salaries, and the job outlook, you may be interested in specializing in this nursing field.

Zippia reports that more than 1.9 million Surgical Nurses are currently employed nationwide in this expansive area of specialization. With the constant advances in surgeries that will enhance a patient’s quality of life—or extend it—the need for experienced nurses in this field will no doubt continue to grow. If you like the idea of helping patients improve their health outlook through surgery, this may be a rewarding RN specialization for your career.

To begin your preparation to become an RN and and specialize as a Surgical Nurse, be sure to review the accelerated BSN Program at Eagle Gate College. Or, if you already work as an RN with an associate degree, consider our RN-to-BSN Program.

Miniature heart and stethoscope against blue backdrop