What Is a Scrub Nurse?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

A scrub nurse typically wears a sterile cap and mask while assisting doctors in an operating room.
A scrub nurse typically wears a sterile cap and mask while assisting doctors in an operating room.

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.

A scrub nurse is responsible of arranging the equipment that's needed for a surgery, such as a scalpel.
A scrub nurse is responsible of arranging the equipment that's needed for a surgery, such as a scalpel.

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.

A scrub nurse assists doctors in the operating room.
A scrub nurse assists doctors in the operating room.

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.

Scrubbing in” usually involves thoroughly washing hands with an antibacteria soap.
Scrubbing in” usually involves thoroughly washing hands with an antibacteria soap.

Knowledge Required

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.

Essential Training

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.

Job Security

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.

Scrub nurses ensure that operating rooms remain sterile.
Scrub nurses ensure that operating rooms remain sterile.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


A scrub nurse is a Surgical Technologist. They usually study at a technical school and sit for a national certification after study and an extern program. They are the sterile team member that pulls supplies and sets up for surgery. Then they scrub in and assist, anticipate and do official counts with the surgeon.

In most cases we are not licensed though I believe with post operative infections and retained items that we most certainly should be. We are governed and practice under the circulating nurse and doctor.

The circulator is the non sterile team member who records and charts the official record and delivers items requested onto the sterile field through the surgical tech and or scrub nurse.

I am well seasoned and have a lot of clinical experience and that being said if you have an ill informed or new circulator, I will be the one to carry her through safely. Scrub nursing originated from the Army and the battle field.


Scrub nurses and circulating nurses are both roles undertaken by any qualified theatre nurse. For one procedure, they may act in the scrub role, for the next case they may act in the circulating role.


could you please describe the difference between a circulatory nurse and a scrub nurse?


could you please tell me where is the right position for the scrub nurse during operation? Is it beside the doctor or beside the assistant of the doctor?


Sabinab, I found a brief discription of information on the duties of the theatre nurse.

Theatre nurses are nurses that can either be a scrub nurse or a circulation nurse. They can also perform anesthetic duties in some situations. Aside from operations, theatre nurses are responsible for overseeing the completion of prescribed treatments during the patient's recovery period. They can also be trained to provide post-operative consultations.

A scrub nurse is expected to pass operating equipment to the surgeon upon request and are very knowledgeable about every piece of equipment.

The responsibility of the circulation nurse is to obtain and open packs that are to be used in the operating room. This duty requires the circulation nurse to open sensitive materials that need to remain sterile and in perfect condition prior to any procedure.


could anyone please describe the roles of a theatre nurse please?

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