The majority of operating room nurses have achieved the status of registered nurse and go on to obtain a specialized education in the field of surgical nursing. This means many have studied an ADN or BSN program to get RN licensure, followed by a master’s degree in surgical nursing or a specialty certification.
According to the Bureau for Labor Statistics, registered nurses can expect to enjoy excellent job growth over the next decade, with the role predicted to grow 7% between 2019 and 2029. This is already 3% faster than average — but for those individuals who zero in on a specific field of nursing, the rate is likely to even higher.
The mean annual wage for nurses is $80,010, which is more than $30,000 higher than the national average wage. The top paying states for registered nurses are California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Alaska. When it comes to states with the highest demand for qualified RNs, South Dakota, West Virginia, Rhode Island, Delaware, and Mississippi come out on top.
A surgical nurse, also sometimes called a scrub nurse, is a highly motivated medical professional who works in surgical settings, assisting medical doctors and surgeons in complex and routine procedures. Perioperative nursing professionals usually work in intensive care units, recovery rooms, trauma and emergency care centers, surgical wards, and operating rooms. Every day, they work with people who are going through life-saving operations, in addition to elective procedures.
Operating room nurses often work side-by-side with a team that includes surgeons, anesthesiologist, nurse anesthetists, operating room practitioners, and porters. They have a crucial role assisting surgeons as they carry out hugely challenging, delicate work and ensure the patient is well looked-after. The surgeon wouldn’t be able to do their job without the support they get from the team around them.
Due to the extreme nature of working in a surgical setting, the role of OR nurse is one of the most demanding nursing specializations. You’ll need a broad range of skills to excel in the role, which includes pre-operative, intra-operative, and post-operative duties. As such, it’s also one of the most in-demand nursing jobs, which means surgical nurses are well-rewarded and highly-respected within the field.
There are four main phases of an operating room nurse’s daily duties: pre-operative care, anesthesia, perioperative care, and recovery supervision. While most of an OR nurse’s most pressing duties take place during surgical procedures, there’s much more to the role. This is because the surgical nurse also acts as an advocate for the patient, as well as liaising between the patient, their family, and the surgical team.
Let’s take a look at the duties a surgical nurse might turn their hand to each day.
First off, there’s the pre-operative phase of care, which involves making sure each patient is sufficiently prepared for the operation. You’ll let them know about the benefits of surgery, as well as any potential risks and check vital signs to ensure they’re healthy enough to go through with the procedure.
It’s important that patients feel secure and confident before going into an operating room, and a major part of a surgical nurse’s role is answering questions and putting the patient’s mind at ease. At this stage, you might need to make use of technical skills, such as administering medication, starting IV lines, and marking and sterilizing incision sites.
While an anesthesiologist and nurse anesthetist are in charge of this aspect of the operation, the surgical nurse is crucial to the process. You might assist them by preparing medications and operational equipment — but you’ll also usually be responsible for making sure the patient is responding to the medication as they should be.
Perioperative nursing isn’t just the time the patient in in the operating room, but it is the most intensive aspect of a med/surgery nurse’s role. There’s no time to stop and catch your breath or take a quick break, and you’re required to be fully aware of everything that’s going on with the surgical patient at all times.
In small, rural hospitals, you might manage and monitor vital signs as well as providing assistance to the medical team. In large hospitals and medical settings, there are several types of operating room nurse:
Once the operation is complete, a medical/surgical nurse is required to carry out any necessary post-operative care until the patient is recovered. Depending on the specific procedure, the surgeon will provide a set of instructions, directing the surgical nurse to administer medication and change dressings.
You’ll also give the patient care and support as they come around from anesthesia and keep track of their vitals until they’re moved back to a general ward or discharged. You might work in an inpatient or outpatient setting, and on either ward, you’re responsible for deciding if a patient is fit for discharge.
For individuals who are passionate about their fellow human beings, have an iron-clad work ethic, and are highly motivated — a job as a surgical nurse can be highly-rewarding. Surgery is one of the most impressive feats in society, and you get to take part in life-saving procedures on a regular basis. This means you get instant, direct feedback after every successful surgery.
There are also plenty of ways to progress and climb up the career ladder as an OR nurse. The role of RN first assistant provides more responsibility and independence, and sees you take part in surgical procedures. After several years in the field, those who excel in their role will be eligible to apply to become a nurse educator, nurse manager, or nurse administrator, specializing in the field of operating room nursing.
Getting into a role as a perioperative nurse requires extensive education, but not as much as you’d need to go through to become an advanced practice registered nurse, nurse practitioner, or nurse anesthetist. Below are the five steps you need to take to get into medical/surgical nursing.
Before applying to nursing school, we’d strongly recommend that you do thorough research into what the role involves. While there are many benefits to entering this role for those who have the mental strength, bedside manner, and technical skills — it’s an extremely emotionally and physically demanding job. That said, if you’re the sort of person who’s considering this role, there’s a good chance you have what it takes.
Some nurses decide to further specialize so they work with patients in specific departments, such as: General surgery, trauma, pediatrics, oncology, plastic surgery, transplant surgery, cardiac surgery, and neurosurgery. The earlier you decide on your specialization, the more you can focus on boosting your CV by getting relevant experience in your clinical rotations.
Most surgical nurses start off by becoming an RN, which means they pursue an ADN or BSN, and then get an RN license. However, there are several pathways you can take, particularly if you already have some experience within the field. A bachelor’s degree is the most well-respected and sought-after qualification because it provides a full four-year education. We’ll discuss the various nursing degrees in detail in the final section of this article.
Once you’ve graduated from an accredited nursing program, you’re ready to sit the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses, which qualify you for practice. When you’ve passed the exam and met the criteria for the board of licensure in your state, you can start working as a certified RN.
In many states, you’ll need to demonstrate at least one year of work experience to get into perioperative nursing. You’ll be able to do this during a master’s degree program, but you can also pursue a vocational program in the hospital or surgical center where you work.
As soon as you’re armed with relevant experience in medical surgical nursing, you can seek additional certification to make you stand out in the job market. There are three relevant certifications — certified medical surgical registered nurse, certified nurse first assistant, and CNOR certification:
Depending on the route you select, and whether you elect to take part in an accelerated course, or study part time, becoming a surgical nursing professional can take between three and five years.
While all RNs require the following traits, there are additional pressures placed on surgical nurses that mean certain skills must be at the forefront on everything they do.
As someone working in a large team within a situation that’s potentially life or death, tension can run extremely high. If you’re particularly sensitive to the way people speak to you, you’ll have to leave it at the door before going into theater. No matter what’s going on, you must be able to communicate clearly and calmly. What’s more, when patient safety is at risk, you’ll need to be confident and outspoken enough to alert the rest of the team to any concerning signs you see in the OR.
Being able to speak to patients before and after surgery to answer questions and offer reassurance means you’ll need to be able to switch effortlessly between being professional and straight to the point with colleagues, while demonstrating an exceptional bedside manner to patients.
A surgical room has unique dynamics and you’ll need to be able to navigate them unflinchingly at all times. Every person in the room plays a pivotal role, and needs a particular skillset. However, for these skills to come together and make for a successful team, there are common traits nurses, surgeons, surgical tech, and anesthesia providers all must share.
Anticipation, organization, and respect are key team working tools you’ll need to master before going into work as a perioperative nurse.
All surgical nurses demonstrate exceptional detail orientation and the ability to multitask. You’re expected to know where everything is, as well as monitoring surgical technology and the patient’s vital signs. Even the slightest change in their condition could have major implications. As such, you’ll need a knack for paying attention to the finest details for team, patient, and technology.
Operating room nursing requires that you think on your feet and apply critical thinking skills on a regular basis. There’s often no time for speculation, you need to trust your instincts and move straight into action when required. Being self-assured comes from being well-prepared, but a propensity for problem-solving puts you at an advantage in this role.
Being able to swiftly and confidently find solutions in the blink of an eye and implement them with minimal fuss supports patient safety and ensures the best possible outcomes.
Organization skills are non-negotiable in this role, which requires professionals to find medications and surgical items quickly and understand the most practical way to conduct themselves under any amount of pressure.
There are several routes you can take to become a surgical nurse, with plenty of options for those who want to advance into an advanced position such as RNFA or CNFA.
Let’s take a look at the available nursing degree programs, types of nursing specialty, how to choose a nursing school is best for you — and the top schools for perioperative nurses in the United States.
To become an operating room nurse, you’ll need to become a registered nurse, and then advance your studies to specialize in medical surgical nursing. You can do this by pursuing a vocational qualification with a medical center or study a master’s degree to get the skills necessary. Certification is separate, and not a requirement, but it can help you stand out above other applicants when you’re seeking employment.
An ADN takes two years to complete, and provides nursing students with all the information and skills they need to become an RN. A mixture of classroom time and on-the-job learning prepares you for a role in nursing, with some prerequisite classes and some electives. Prerequisites might include:
Some of the coursework topics you’ll study on an ADN course include:
Many nurses prefer to get a BSN because of the additional opportunities it opens up to them. It usually takes four years to complete, which means more time to learn about the hard and soft skills nurses must possess. Many large medical settings prefer a BSN education and some offer to pay for those with an ADN qualification to advance to a BSN. This is usually faster than four years due to the additional credits obtained in your associate degree.
During the first two years, you usually focus solely on prerequisite courses, which might include general education studies, nursing-specific prerequisites, and coursework. Topics you might cover include:
An MSN is an excellent qualification for BSN graduates who wish to get into a more specialized field of nursing when they graduate. It’s also a great way for those who have been working as nurses to step up and move forward in their career. Many require a nursing bachelor’s degree, but accelerated programs accept individuals who have an unrelated bachelor’s degree.
Many nursing students have the ambition of becoming an advanced practice registered nurse, which you can do with a master’s degree. Other nursing programs let learners zero in on a specialization such as oncology, cardiology, mental health, or pediatrics. MSN students can expect to study the following topics:
If you have a burning ambition to gain advanced certification and work within a specific field of nursing, there are plenty options to choose from. Here are some of the most in-demand:
There are several metrics to look at when choosing which school to study as a surgical nurse. We’d recommend placing equal importance on four factors: Academic quality, price, reputation, and NCLEX-RN pass rate. You can look into acceptance rate, graduation rate, tuition fees, online reviews, and ranking lists from sites such as U.S. News & World Report and QS Universities.
If you’re looking to study a program that’s specific to the field of surgical nursing, the following schools offer relevant medical surgical programs: