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Mayo Clinic surgical technologists preparing for a procedure

What does a surgical technologist do?

Surgical technologists, also called operating room technicians, work alongside and assist surgeons, nurses, and other members of the health care team throughout a surgical operation. The role of the surgical technologist is incredibly important because they ensure a sterile and organized environment.

Scope of practice

Surgical technologists work in the operating room with surgeons, anesthesiologists, and nurses. Their common tasks and duties can be split into three phases: before the surgical operation (preoperative), during the surgical operation (intraoperative), and after the surgical operation (postoperative).

Before the procedure, surgical technologists focus on sterilization and preparation. This includes:

  • Sterilizing the equipment and operating room
  • Helping with preparing the patient for surgery 
  • Gathering, counting, and arranging the equipment and surgical tools needed during the surgery
  • Preparing patients for the procedure

During the surgery, surgical technologists also have a variety of important responsibilities:

  • Keeping the operating room sterile
  • Passing surgical tools to the surgeon and the surgeon’s assistant
  • Assisting in retracting tissues from the surgical patient

After the surgery, surgical technologists assist with wrapping up the procedure and are responsible for:

  • Counting all of the tools and instruments used during the surgery
  • Applying dressings to surgical sites
  • Disposing of needles and gauze
  • Maintaining the sterile environment of the operating room until the patient is brought to the recovery room


While many surgical technologists work in general surgery or between a variety of areas, some choose to work specifically in a surgical specialty area. Some of the more common specialized surgical areas include: 

  • Cardiology
  • Neurosurgery
  • Organ transplantation
  • Orthopedic 
  • Pediatric surgery
  • Plastic surgery

Work environment

Surgical technologists work in hospital operating rooms, outpatient centers, and doctors’ offices. They spend much of their working day in the operating room, preparing for, assisting with, and cleaning up after surgeries. It can become quite warm working under surgical lights in the operating room, especially when wearing sterile surgical gowns and gloves. The surgical technologist will need to stand for long periods and must remain alert and ready for anything during operations. 

Surgical technologists typically work full-time, which may include nights, weekends, holidays, and on-call work.

Becoming a surgical technologist

Individuals interested in becoming surgical technologists must be detail-oriented. The work of a surgical technologist is incredibly important to ensure a sterile and well-organized environment in the operating room. They need to make sure that all tools are present for the surgery, and accounted for after the surgery is done. Attention to detail is essential to success in this role, and errors could be life-threatening. Surgical technologists must work well under pressure and have great communication skills.

Higher education requirements

Surgical technologists may receive their higher education training in a community college, vocational school, university, hospital, or the military. In order to become a surgical technologist, a certificate program that includes specialized education and training is required. 

Surgical technologist training programs can be as short as 12 months for a certificate or two years for a combined associate degree plus specialized training. Typical entrance requirements include a high school diploma and prerequisite courses such as anatomy and physiology, medical terminology, and microbiology.

Certification process

Certification is strongly suggested and preferred by many employers. The most common, Certified Surgical Technologist (CST) credential is offered by the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA)

Career opportunities and outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the employment of surgical technologists will continue to grow at an average pace. This is due to advances in medical technology and more operations are being done to treat many types of illnesses and injuries.

With additional experience and education, some surgical technologists become first surgical assistants or registered nurses. Others advance by specializing in a particular area of surgery. Some technologists manage central supply departments in hospitals or take positions with insurance companies, sterile supply services, and surgical equipment firms.

Mayo Clinic central service technician preparing surgical supplies

Central service technician

A student in clinical neurophysiology technology prepping a patient for a sleep study

Neurodiagnostic technologist

Mayo Clinic surgical first assistant in an operating room

Surgical first assistant