What is a Perioperative Nurse?

Harriette Halepis

A perioperative nurse is a nurse who works in an emergency operating room. These registered nursing professionals assist surgeons with various tasks while also helping patients to relax and remain comfortable during surgery. A perioperative nurse may also help patients before surgery (pre-operative) and after surgery (post-operative).

A perioperative nurse may be responsible for assisting surgeons during surgery.
A perioperative nurse may be responsible for assisting surgeons during surgery.

When a perioperative nurse is acting as a pre-operative nurse, these individuals are responsible for a number of different things including working with a patient's family members. Pre-operative nurses must assess each patient, prepare each patient for surgery, and speak with patients regarding any fears or concerns. Once surgery commences, the role of the pre-operative nurse frequently changes to that of a perioperative nurse.

Perioperative nurses sometimes help patients before surgery.
Perioperative nurses sometimes help patients before surgery.

During surgery, two perioperative nurses usually tend to each patient. The "circulating" nurse is responsible for the general safety and well-being of a patient during surgery. This nurse works with the surgeon, anesthesia expert, and the scrub nurse to ensure that all safety procedures are being followed. This perioperative nurse may also be responsible for assisting a surgical team, though circulating nurses do not handle surgical equipment.

Perioperative nurses work in emergency operating rooms.
Perioperative nurses work in emergency operating rooms.

The other type of perioperative nurse is referred to as a "scrub" nurse. A scrub nurse acts as a surgical assistant by handing a surgeon specific sterilized tools during an operation. Additionally, the scrub nurse is responsible for making sure that all medical instruments are properly cared for and safe.

A perioperative nurse is often responsible for sterilizing and handling all surgical instruments.
A perioperative nurse is often responsible for sterilizing and handling all surgical instruments.

Following surgery, perioperative nurses are frequently required to act as post-operative nurses. Immediately after surgery, the post-operative nurse tends to a patient who has just undergone a surgical procedure. During this crucial time, a post-operative nurse's main responsibility is to ensure the safety and comfort of a patient. Post-operative nurses have extensive training handling post-operative patients.

Clearly, the role of a perioperative nurse is not an easy one. These individuals must be able to perform three complex nursing tasks at all times. Perioperative nurses tend to have extensive specialized training in addition to general nursing training. While this type of profession is complex and difficult, perioperative nurses often enjoy a rewarding career. Anyone wishing to become a perioperative nurse should possess great communication skills along with a general interest in helping others.

The best way to begin a career as a perioperative nurse is to attend nursing school followed by specialized courses. Many hospitals and private clinics hire nurses that have perioperative training. Without these individuals, the operating room would be a confusing and potentially unsafe place.

A perioperative nurse must be familiar with hygienic and sterilization procedures used during surgery.
A perioperative nurse must be familiar with hygienic and sterilization procedures used during surgery.

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Discussion Comments


Do perioperative nurse jobs make a higher salary than those nurses who work on the floor?

My daughter is thinking about going in to nursing, and is trying to look at all the options.

She has some people who recommend she become a surgical nurse so she doesn't have to deal with as much patient contact.

Other nurses tell her the patient contact is the best part of their job. I know she will have to determine what is right for her. Usually the best way to do that is by actually working and doing it.

Often times I hear about how there are a shortage of nursing jobs, yet most of the nursing schools in our area have waiting lists.

Since there will always be people who end up in the emergency room and need surgery, I don't imagine it would be hard to get a job as a perioperative nurse once you completed all your training.


@bagley79 - In my training as a nurse, I have found just the opposite. I enjoy being a circulating perioperative nurse.

One of the biggest reasons for this is I enjoy having contact with the patient and their family. I have found this to be a rewarding part of my job.

There have been many hard times, when I wish I was doing something else, but overall, this is a very rewarding job.

Knowing that I am directly involved in how a patient makes it through surgery, and how they feel afterwards is always rewarding.

I have friends who are nurses and they don't have any interest in being a perioperative registered nurse. Most of them work in a particular unit of a hospital, and are used to the nursing duties of every day care.

I enjoy the challenge of being in the operating room, and feel like I learn something new almost every day.


I have worked as a nurse for many years, and have spent time being both a scrub nurse, and a circulating nurse. Both of them have their advantages and disadvantages, but I have found that I prefer being a scrub nurse for the most part.

I like being right in the middle of what is going on, and making sure the surgeon has the proper tools they need.

It can almost sound like a simple job, but it takes a lot of training to be good at it. You almost need to know what the surgeon is going to need before he even asks for it.

You have to be able to think quickly because many times these surgeries can be a matter of life or death. If I were to hand the surgeon the wrong tool, it would slow down the operation and make a situation that was already tense even worse.


My daughter works as a nurse in the emergency room of a small hospital. Although I don't believe she has an actual perioperative nurse job description, that is exactly what she does.

Smaller hospitals are run differently than larger hospitals where each job is individually specialized. When you are in a smaller location, your nursing job can be much more varied.

When someone has surgery in the emergency room she works in, she takes care of everything before, during and after the surgery.

There are many times when this can be quite stressful, but she has learned to adapt to it and provides excellent patient care no matter what the situation is.


I'm interning as a perioperative nurse right now. It's more like a perioperative nursing program because it's a combined internship and course where we get on-hands training as perioperative nurses. We are going back and forth as scrub nurses and circulating in the ER right now.

If I do a good job and pass the course, I will be able to stay on at this hospital and work full time as a perioperative nurse.

I really like this job, it's very exciting and I feel like I get so many opportunities because I can interact with everyone. I'm able to enter surgery, work with patients, their families and doctors. It's such a great career, I really hope I do well and stay on full time.


@burcinc-- I agree with you. Perioperative nurses contribute greatly to safety of patients and efficiency in the hospital, especially if they work as theatre nurses. This is the ideal anyway and perioperative nurse training entails all of this.

The problem is that sometimes that there can be too many patients and too many operations happening in a single day. If there are not enough perioperative nurses for each patient, the nurses are in a difficult situation. I know that at the hospital I work at, the perioperative nurses are the busiest nurses and they do their utmost to get to everyone's needs.

There is a shortage of perioperative nurses and I think we need to train more. Perioperative nurses can take on several roles like the article said and their job is pretty challenging. But as you mentioned, patients feel more comfortable and safe when they have the same nurse tending to their needs throughout treatment.

That's why we need more perioperative nurses, so that each one can have sufficient time to devote themselves to one patient at a time.


I had the same nurse as my pre-operative, perioperative and post-operative nurse during my splenectomy. She was a fantastic nurse who listed to all my concerns with patience, explained the procedures to me and made me feel comfortable and safe throughout the whole process. I probably would have been much more anxious and worried going into surgery if she hadn't been there.

I don't know if perioperative nurse practitioners are always so important, but she definitely played an important role during my surgery, preparation as well as recovery.

She was also took time out to talk to my family extensively and I think they were very relieved after speaking with her as well.

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