Careers in Nursing: What Is a Surgical Nurse?
Every year, millions of people undergo surgery in the U.S. Whether it’s an elective operation, like vision correction, or a necessary life-saving procedure, patients rely on their surgeons to provide a safe, comfortable, and successful experience.
But there’s more that influences the success of a surgery than having it performed by an experienced surgeon. In fact, if it weren’t for surgical nurses, surgeons and patients alike would be unprepared and ill-equipped for surgery.
To learn more about this nursing career, keep reading. We’ll discuss the responsibilities that come with being a surgical nurse, as well as the average salary and job outlook for this dynamic nursing specialty.
What Does a Surgical Nurse Do?
Surgical nurses, also known as perioperative nurses or operating room nurses, are the backbone of any surgical team. They’re responsible for managing critical elements of care to ensure surgical procedures are completed safely and successfully.
In doing so, surgical nurses also ensure patients receive the highest quality care before, during, and after their surgical procedures.
Before a patient goes into surgery, a surgical nurse is responsible for prepping the patient. This involves:
Educating the patient – Pre-surgical nurses educate patients and their families about the specifics of their procedure, including how long the procedure will take and what will occur. A nurse will also review pre-procedure instructions with the patient, such as not eating or drinking for a certain amount of time before surgery.
Monitoring patient’s condition – Through history and physical assessment the nurse is monitoring the patient for changes and assessing risk related to surgical procedures.
Prepping the patient – To physically prepare a patient for surgery, a surgical nurse may start intravenous lines, administer medication, and sterilize the incision site.
Advocating for the patient – Whether witnessing the informed consent, tailoring specific care measures to the patient’s needs or conducting a pre-procedure safety “time-out,” perioperative nurses are constantly looking out for the patient’s best interests.
Documentation – From accurately documenting a patient’s preoperative vitals to ensuring consent forms and waivers have been signed, surgical nurses ensure an accurate record of care is kept.
Reassuring the patient – Patients about to undergo surgery can often feel nervous or scared. To help alleviate anxiety—and keep heart and blood pressure rates under control—surgical nurses offer compassion and comfort to their patients, reassuring they’re in safe hands.
While surgical nurses aren’t responsible for performing surgical procedures themselves, they nevertheless play a vital role in the operating room.
During surgery, a surgical nurse will:
Assess – The nurse will assess the patient’s physiological well-being by monitoring vital signs, volume of blood loss and track important things like urine output and positioning of the patient.
Assist the surgeon – Aside from monitoring the patient, a surgical nurse in an RN first assistant (RNFA) role assists the surgeon by handing them the proper surgical instruments and operating any surgical equipment.
Monitor safety — Perioperative nurses circulate the operating room to complete safety checks to ensure that all equipment is accounted for and used properly.
Following completion of the surgical procedure, patients require tailed care and monitoring. There, a surgical nurse team will:
Monitor the patient – As patients come out of anesthesia, surgical nurses in the postanesthesia care unit (PACU) are responsible for monitoring their vital signs and neurological status to assess for changes that indicate the need for further intervention as well as provide physical and emotional support as the patient regains consciousness.
Administer post-operative care – Once the patient has recovered from anesthesia they may be sent home if the surgical procedure was straightforward or they may spend several days in the hospital for several days for further monitoring.
For patients who have same day surgery (sent home the day of the procedure) post-operative nurses will provide essential education to the patient and his/caregiver to make sure the patient will follow the necessary care plan at home as well as seek care if complications arise.
Post-operative patient care for patients who require a hospital stay, involves changing dressings, administering medication, and assisting with pain management. As well as patient education before discharging a patient, a nurse will discuss post-operative home care to ensure a successful recovery even after the patient has left the medical facility.
Advocate for the patient — While the patient recovers from anesthesia to the care in the hours and days after a procedure, surgical nurses advocate for the patient when they are not able to talk for themselves as well as work to make sure the patient receives the necessary care and services form the interdisciplinary team.
Types of Surgical Nurses
To guarantee the wide range of surgical nursing duties are successfully carried out, surgical nursing is broken down into various roles. A nurse’s specific career goals and skill set can help determine which role will best allow them to thrive within the field.
Surgical nursing roles include:
Circulating nurses – Circulating nurses manage the logistics of the operating room. Think of them “circulating” the room to ensure nothing slips through the cracks to ensure safety. Their responsibilities include assessing surgical equipment, reviewing pre-op information with patients, confirming consent forms are signed, and conducting safety timeouts.
RN first assistants – RNFAs work closely with the surgeon, acting as a second set of hands and eyes. These surgical nurses are responsible for monitoring signs of patient distress, helping to control bleeding, assisting with suturing, and applying dressings. Due to their more hands-on role, RNFAs require additional education and training.
Post-anesthesia care unit nurses – These surgical nurses provide care to patients immediately following surgery. As patients come out from anesthesia, PACU nurses monitor their vitals signs, respiratory function and neurological status to prepare them to move to the medical-surgical unit or ICU once they’re stable.
Medical-surgical nurses – Medical-surgical nurses assist patients with their recovery once they’ve left the post-anesthesia care unit. These nurses are responsible for administering fluids and medication, assessing for changes and improvement, and educating patients on how they can continue to manage their recovery from home.
Operating room directors – Operating room directors are the business managers of the surgical nursing field. Their duties focus on budgeting, staffing, and ordering surgical equipment and supplies.
Surgical Nursing Specialties
Aside from focusing on a specific role, surgical nurses can also choose to specialize in a specific area of healthcare.
Specializations can include:
- Cardiac surgery
- Emergency surgery
- Dental surgery
- Plastic and reconstructive surgery
- Transplant surgery
How to Become a Surgical Nurse
Regardless of which role a surgical nurse plays or their nursing specialty, specific character traits can guarantee increased success in this dynamic position.
For instance, as members of surgical teams, surgical nurses must work well with others. In fact, the success of an operation depends largely on a surgical nurse’s ability to collaborate and communicate effectively with surgeons and other nursing staff.
Successful surgical nurses should also be:
Along with these qualities, surgical nurses need to receive the proper education and training to execute their role effectively. If you’re interested in becoming a surgical nurse, the process involves:
Obtaining a nursing degree – Choose an accredited nursing program to earn your nursing degree. While an associate’s degree program can guarantee a degree within two years, a bachelor’s degree is typically preferred among surgical nursing employers.
Passing the National Council Licensure Exam – Passing this national exam is required to receive your registered nursing license and work as a nurse in the U.S.
Gaining first-hand experience – A job as a critical care unit nurse or emergency room nurse can provide relevant experience for a future career as a surgical nurse.
Advancing your education – Successfully completing a perioperative nurse training program, or earning a master’s or doctorate degree with a focus on surgical nursing will make you an invaluable candidate for any surgical nursing position.
Earning certifications – To increase your level of expertise (as well as your salary), you can apply for surgical nursing certifications based on the surgical nursing role you want to pursue. RN first assistants, for instance, can earn their Certified Nurse First Assistant certifications to demonstrate their specific knowledge of the role to future employers.
What is the Average Salary of a Surgical Nurse?
A career as a surgical nurse isn’t only personally rewarding, it’s also financially rewarding. In 2019, the average annual salary of a surgical nurse was reported at $73,300. However, exact salary is impacted by factors such as level of education and years of experience in the field.
Surgical nurses who advance their education with a master’s degree, doctorate degree, or additional certifications can expect to earn a higher annual salary than those who only hold bachelor’s degrees.
The state where you work can also play a role in the amount of money you earn. The average annual salary of surgical nurses in California, for instance, stands at $113,240. Other top paying states include Hawaii, the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, and Oregon.
What is the Job Outlook for Surgical Nursing?
As nurses of the baby boomer generation are reaching retirement age, the amount of working nurses in the U.S. is declining. This has resulted in a demand for nurses in every field, including surgical nursing.
In fact, nursing employment is projected to grow by a rate of twelve percent through 2028—a higher than average job rate growth. And with millions of surgeries performed every year in the U.S., the need for surgical nurses shows no signs of slowing down.
Find the Key to Unlocking Your Potential
If you’re looking for an in-demand career that allows you to positively impact countless lives, choose a career as a surgical nurse. In this exhilarating field, you’re able to assist with life-saving surgical procedures, while also providing patients the invaluable compassion, support, and education they need for a truly successful surgery.
To begin your journey toward a fulfilling career in nursing, consider an accelerated bachelor’s of science nursing program.
The content published on our blog is reviewed by credentialed healthcare professionals to give you the most up-to-date and professionally accurate information. This particular article was professionally reviewed by Colleen Sanders, RN, FNP-BC on July 26, 2021.
Nurse.org. How to Become a Surgical Nurse. https://nurse.org/resources/perioperative-surgical-nurse-c1/
EveryNurse. Surgical Nurse. https://everynurse.org/careers/surgical-nurse/
NurseJournal. Best Ways on How To Become A Surgical Nurse. https://nursejournal.org/careers/surgical-nurse/how-to-become/