How to Become a Surgical Nurse in 5 Steps

Research what it takes to become a surgical nurse. Learn about the education and licensure requirements, job duties and employment outlook to find out if this is the career for you. Schools offering Nursing degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is a Surgical Nurse?

When a person needs surgery a surgical nurse will provide them with care before, during and after the procedure. They may perform many tasks that are the same as the work that other nurses do, such as administering medication or IV fluids, but they will also assist a physician during the surgery and develop a post-operative care plan for the patient. During the surgery they monitor the patient's vital signs, and they may hand instruments to the physician and perform other tasks as needed. Surgical nurses are registered nurses, and they need to have a degree in nursing to prepare for their career.

Degree Required Associate's or bachelor's degree; master's degree for advanced roles
Education Field of Study Nursing
Key Responsibilities Provides supportive functions in operating room; observes and cares for surgical patients; performs scrub nurse and circulating nurse duties; monitor's patient status and maintains patient records
Licensure and/or Certification Licensure as RN is required; medical-surgical nurse board certification is available
Job Growth (2014-2024) 16% for all RNs*
Median Salary (2016) $65,387**

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **PayScale.com

What Does a Surgical Nurse Do?

In general, you'll work with surgeons, anesthesiologists and other nurses to provide care for patients. You'll often answer last-minute questions and soothe patients' worries about the surgery. You'll assist surgeons in the operating room, handle surgical equipment and anticipate surgeons' needs. After surgery, you'll monitor patient vital signs and change bandages.

Step 1: Complete a Nursing Program

Similar to most other nursing specialties; you need to complete either an associate or bachelor's degree program in nursing, and you won't be able to seek certification or licensure until you do. These programs teach you the essentials about working as a nurse. From terminology to medications and treatments, you'll learn the needed skills to handle patients and prevent further sicknesses and injuries.

Step 2: Become an RN

The NCLEX-RN exam is used by many states for licensing requirements. This exam is offered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing and tests you on your current nursing knowledge. You'll also need clinical experience prior to licensing.

Step 3: Decide Your Specialty

Surgical nurses work in almost any specialty that includes surgery. You'll assist the doctor in the operating room if you have the experience and the credentials. At this step in your career path, you'll select the unit or department in which you'd most like to work. Some examples are pediatrics, emergency, oncology and cardiovascular nurse practitioners. Once you've decided your specialty, you may need a master's degree program in it. This will improve your marketability.

Step 4: Spend Time in Surgery

Since specific education requirements to become a surgical nurse haven't been set, you should gain experience in surgery. Specifically, your experience should be in the specialty you'd like to work. You may be able to acquire this experience during the training for your master's degree program. However, some employers may require more clinical experience. And, some states may also require specific clinical experiences for licensing.

Step 5: Become Certified

Once you've acquired your clinical experience, you can move on to become certified as a medical-surgical nurse. The medical-surgical nurse exam is offered through the American Nurses Credentialing Center. Along with an RN license, you'll also need 30 credit hours of medical-surgical education and 2,000 hours of practice in surgery.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Some careers that have similarities to the work of a surgical nurse include those of physician's assistants, licensed practical nurses, and EMTs and paramedics. Physician's assistants may assist with surgeries under the supervision of a physician, and they are required to have a master's degree as well as professional licensure. Some of the tasks they perform may be similar to a nurse's duties, because they may help develop a patient care plan, make rounds, and monitor the patient's progress.

EMTs and paramedics respond to people who are suffering from illness or injury and may provide immediate medical care and transport patients to the hospital. They take patients' vital signs and assess their condition, and may administer medications, provide first aid or perform CPR. While EMTs typically only need a postsecondary certificate, paramedics are often experienced EMTs who also hold an advanced certificate or an associate's degree. Both of these professions require certification.

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