A scrub nurse, also referred to as a surgical technologist or "surgical tech," is a medical professional who prepares and maintains a sterile operating environment for medical procedures. Scrub nurses prepare the operating room and provide sterile tools and equipment for use during procedures.
Additionally, the scrub nurse assists surgeons and other healthcare experts in the operating room. These nurses “scrub in” to each surgery, which is where they get their name. “Scrubbing in” usually involves thoroughly washing hands and arms with an antibacterial soap, then putting on a sterile mask, hat, gown and gloves so that patients will not be contaminated. Nurses who work in this environment are often responsible for handing surgeons the necessary tools and instruments during the procedure, and conducting official counts of tools at the end of the procedure.
Specific Role in the Operating Room
Scrub nurses usually work as part of a perioperative nursing team, and play a very important role in most surgeries. They are often described as the surgeon’s primary assistant. They are responsible for arranging all necessary equipment — scalpels, saws, and suction tools, to name a few — and handing them to the surgeon when called.
The nurse is also responsible for ensuring that all needed equipment is in the room before the surgery begins. He or she is typically tasked with sterilizing instruments and ensuring that they are clean. At the end of the procedure, it is the scrub nurse’s job to make sure that all of the equipment is accounted for.
A scrub nurse has certification from a technical school and has completed an extern program prior to beginning their career. Scrub nurses must have general knowledge of the medical procedures in which they operate, but generally obtain this through clinical experience. They practice under a supervising nurse who will guide them as they gain experience. As with all medical workers, scrub nurses will continue to study and keep up with latest trends, tools, and techniques relevant to their work.
Difference Between Hospital and Private Practice Jobs
Most scrub nurses work on a rotation basis in a hospital. Some work in private practice, however, usually in association with a specific private surgeon. For some procedures, particularly those that are voluntary, patients will hire specialists and surgeons who are independent of regular hospital staff. Many of these surgeons employ their own teams of nurses who accompany them and assist with all procedures.
Both hospital and private practice nurses perform the majority of their job duties in a hospital setting, which can make the distinction somewhat arbitrary when it comes to daily tasks. The main difference is in how they are paid and where their main office is.
Training to become a scrub nurse usually starts with nursing school, often at the graduate level — the vast majority of practitioners are registered nurses, or RNs, which typically requires a master’s degree. Depending on the jurisdiction, nurses may also have to pass certification or licensing exams before being permitted to work in an operating room. Sometimes these are one-time tests, but in many cases they are credentials that must be renewed every few years.
There is usually a somewhat steady demand for scrub nurses, which means that the job is relatively secure. The work is often grueling, as many surgeries are long, intense, and happen at all hours of the day and night. In most places, though, the pay is quite competitive, and the potential for advancement is generally strong.
Related Nursing Roles
Scrub nurses are often joined in the operating room by other perioperative assistants known as “circulating nurses.” These professionals typically monitor the periphery of the operating room, ensuring that it remains sterile and secure during the procedure. Circulating nurses are also usually responsible for prepping patients for surgery, and are often nearby when the patients eventually wake up in recovery.
Circulators may also be in charge of communicating with the patient’s family members during the surgery and recovery periods. A scrub nurse is usually too preoccupied with the logistics of the procedure to handle these sorts of details.