What Does a Surgical Nurse Do?

Smiling female nurse faces camera in operating room as surgeons and assistants work on patient in the background.

There is still a strong demand for nurses throughout the health care industry. This is especially true for nurses with advanced skills and knowledge as well as those who have a strong education and can specialize in a particular area.

One growing and in-demand specialty is surgical nursing. A surgical nurse coordinates patient care in the operating room, and is also known as a perioperative nurse or OR nurse.

Surgical (OR) Nurse Responsibilities

Coordinating patient care in the OR from pre-op to post-op is a complex process. It involves a lot of decision-making and working with many health care professionals and providers, as well as family members.

“Although the surgeon directs the actual surgery, he or she can’t focus on all the other coordination that needs to take place,” said Patricia Seifert, former president of the Association of periOperative Registered Nurses (AORN). “That’s why we’re so essential in the OR. And we do things that often aren’t apparent to others, but invaluable to the patient’s care.”

For example, a patient broke her leg and also had heart disease, requiring bypass surgery. The chest surgery was most important, but there were concerns about how to position the patient’s leg during the initial surgery. Seifert consulted with her orthopedic contact for help on how to position the leg properly.

A surgical nurse typically serves in one of three functions.

  • Scrub Nurse: Responsible for selecting instruments and supplies needed for the operation. Hands these items to the surgeon during the surgery and monitors the patient’s status, while anticipating needs that the surgeon and patient may have.
  • Circulating Nurse: Manages overall nursing care in the OR, helping to maintain a safe and comfortable environment.
  • RN First Assistant (RNFA): Delivers direct surgical care by assisting with controlling bleeding, providing wound exposure and suturing during the procedure. This is an expanded role in the specialty.

Surgical (OR) Nurse Salary

Surgical nurses are required to be registered nurses. The median annual wage for registered nurses is $68,450, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The highest 10 percent earn more than $102,990 and the lowest 10 percent earn less than $47,120.

The employment of registered nurses is projected to grow 16 percent by 2024, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. The BLS notes that registered nurses with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing will have better job prospects than those without one.

According to Seifert, surgical nurses are in higher demand because of an increase in outpatient surgery (especially in physicians’ offices) and due to their attractiveness for insurance companies and risk management. There is also an increase in alternative and complementary therapies, such as music therapy, guided imagery and therapeutic touch, which are often embraced in operating rooms.

In addition to a BSN degree, surgical nursing candidates can pursue certification to boost their employment opportunities. AORN offers certification options for surgical nurses including the widely regarded CNOR credential. Other credential options include the CRNFA certification program, the Certified Surgical Services Manager (CSSM) certification program and the Clinical Nurse Specialist Perioperative Certification Exam (CNS-CP).

Advancing Your Nursing Career

Career opportunities in areas such as surgical nursing are within reach of candidates with a strong educational background. Standards are on the rise, as more hospitals across the nation require nurses to hold a BSN degree. Aurora University’s online RN to BSN program equips graduates with the skills and knowledge needed to pursue advanced career opportunities. The program takes place in an online learning environment, allowing students the flexibility and convenience to complete their degree while maintaining their work and personal schedule.