surgical nurse in the operating room

If you’ve always been interested in the surgical side of medicine, becoming a surgical nurse might be right for you. It’s a fast-paced, exciting career that allows you to be involved in patients' preoperative, perioperative, and postoperative care. 

Surgical nurses, also known as perioperative or OR nurses, are registered nurses who work in the surgical setting in hospitals, ambulatory centers, and day-surgery centers. 

Surgical nurses also work closely with patients and their families to coordinate care after discharge. In addition, being a surgical nurse allows you to work closely with surgeons in the OR, then provide vital support to patients before and after surgery. 

Depending on your passions, you can even choose to specialize in different types of surgical procedures. So whether you’re drawn to the OR in general or want to help trauma patients, you’ll start your perioperative nursing journey with a degree.

What are the steps to becoming a qualified Surgical Nurse?

Every nurse’s career starts with nursing school. You will learn the principles of nursing and how to deliver appropriate patient care. However, if your goal is to one day work alongside surgeons, you’ll need additional training to prepare for work in the operating room.

Attend Nursing School

You have a variety of options in terms of earning your degree. For example, some nurses choose to earn a two-year degree (ADN), while others prefer to take their education a step further and earn a four-year degree (BSN).

An ADN Nursing is an undergraduate degree that teaches you the core skills you need to sit the NCLEX-RN exam. The program usually takes two years; however, some programs can be completed in 18 months. An ADN also allows you to further your education and earn a BSN or MSN. 

A BSN (Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing) also involves coursework and clinicals. Depending on your specific program, the courses may include traditional bachelor’s degree subjects and more focused nursing topics. 

If you’re just starting without previous college credits, the BSN program typically takes four years to complete as a full-time student. However, if you hold an associate degree and are a licensed RN, the RN to BSN program takes about two years to complete. 

ADNs are the fastest pathway to an RN license. New York became the first state to require all nurses to have a BSN within ten years of getting their license. While no other state mandates a bachelor’s to be a nurse, earning a BSN is often required to further your career.

Prepare for and Pass The NCLEX-RN exam

After earning your degree, you also need to pass the NCLEX-RN exam. Passing this exam is a significant milestone. In addition, this step is the second-to-last step in becoming a registered nurse.

Before your exam, you can take practice tests to prepare for the big day. Practice exams give you better insight into your strengths and weaknesses and help structure your studying. 

There are four areas of core competencies of nursing on the NCLEX-RN:

  • Providing a safe and effective care environment

  • Health promotion and maintenance

  • Psychosocial integrity

  • Physiological Integrity

Obtain a state registered nurse license

After passing the NCLEX-RN, you must obtain the appropriate state licensing. Then, you can apply for your license through your state’s board of nursing. Once they process your application, they will officially register you with the board and send you a license.

Check renewal requirements as well; nursing licenses tend to expire after three years. So if you want to continue working as a nurse after three years, you’ll have to submit a renewal application.

Gain clinical experience

To become a surgical nurse, you can pursue one of two certifications:

  • Certified Medical-Surgical Registered Nurse (CMSRN)

  • Certified Perioperative Nurse (CNOR) 

Before you can sit for the CMSRN, you’ll need at least two years of clinical experience as an RN. You must also have at least 2,000 years of practice within the last three years in a medical-surgical setting. 

To earn your CNOR certification, you must hold a valid nurse’s license, have at least two years of work experience, a minimum of 2,400 hours of work in an intraoperative setting, and currently work in perioperative practice, nursing education program, or research. 

While working as a general RN, you can also work toward certifications in more advanced patient care. For example, consider advanced cardiac life support (ACLS), a step above the mandatory basic life support (BLS) all RNs must know.

Study and pass a Surgical Nursing Certification 

You’ll have to complete additional certification requirements to become a licensed surgical nurse with your RN license. 

Both the CRFNA (Certified Registered Nurse First Assistant) and CNOR are certification options you can choose to obtain your surgical nurse credentials. 

The CNOR exam is offered by the CCI, the Competency and Credentialing Institute. It helps prepare you to provide proper care to patients before, during, and immediately following surgery. 

CCI also offers the RNFA. It also allowed registered nurses to become certified as an RNFA (registered nurse first assistant). 

 To sit for the CRNFA certification, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree, at least 2,000 hours of perioperative experience, and complete an RNFA certification program. 

Can you become a Surgical Nurse online?

While you can take some of your prerequisites for your nursing degree online, you need to complete clinicals in person to earn your degree.

All NCLEX-RN applicants must have completed at least 500 hours of clinicals before taking the exam. If you’re an RN and want to further your degree online, you can do this entirely from home.

However, if a continuing education program requires in-person training, you must complete the set number of hours before you are awarded your certificate. Consider the CRNFA; while you can complete part of an RNFA program online, you’ll need to work 2,000 hours in a clinical, operative setting to become certified.

What is the difference between a Surgical Nurse and a Scrub Nurse? 

Both surgical and scrub nurses are critical parts of a healthcare team. Surgical nurses or scrub nurses work directly under the supervision of a doctor or surgeon. They may assist in keeping the operative area sterile before and during an operation. In addition, surgical and scrub nurses work in hospital settings and outpatient surgical clinics. 

You may choose to work in a specific specialty as a surgical nurse. For example, you may choose to work exclusively in pediatrics or with cardiothoracic surgical patients. However, scrub and surgical nurses share many of the same responsibilities, including monitoring the patient during surgery and ensuring the correct instruments are set up for surgery. 

Some hospitals may treat scrub and perioperative nurses slightly differently; the scrub nurse may be solely responsible for sterilizing and “scrubbing in” the surgical team. On the other hand, the perioperative nurse might only stand in as an assistant during the operation.

However, everyone who works in the OR knows they are part of a team. They share responsibilities and work together to ensure the operating room is always maintained and safe. 

What positions can you progress to from being a Surgical Nurse?

After passing certifying exams and completing the required number of clinical hours, surgical nurses can go on to become nurse anesthetists, operating room directors, and patient educators.

Nurse anesthetists (CRNAs) can either work alongside the anesthesiologist or act as an anesthesiologist themself. States set their own regulations on what a CRNA can perform.

Operating room directors are responsible for setting the schedule and budget for the OR, in addition to managing the operating room staff. 

Patient educators are medical professionals who work with patients to help them and their families better understand their medical conditions and their surgical intervention, if applicable.

Do your Surgical Nurse exam qualifications expire?

Remaining certified reaffirms your competence and demonstrates your devotion to being a surgical nurse. 

Although it may vary from state to state, most certifications are valid for five years. However, this will depend on where you live, so it’s always best to check with your licensing board.

Keep in mind that your RN license and other nursing credentials are different. So, you must maintain and renew your regular license and other certifications separately. 

How much do Surgical Nurses make?

Our research shows that a surgical nurse's salary is $73,366 annually. Similar to other careers in nursing, the annual salary usually increases with years of experience. 

For instance, a surgical nurse with only one year of experience may start at around $28.83, whereas someone with more than ten years of experience can earn upwards of $35.00 to $36.00 per hour. 

Holding additional certifications or higher degrees can also increase your earnings.

How long does it take to become a Surgical Nurse?

It takes at least four years to become a licensed surgical nurse if you're not currently a registered nurse. You’ll need to earn at least an associate’s degree to sit for the NCLEX-RN and another two years of on-the-job experience to qualify for the surgical nurse certification. 

If you choose to earn your BSN, it will take you six years to become a certified perioperative nurse.

For those who are already RNs, you’ll need to gain the appropriate amount of perioperative experience. If you aspire to become a CRNFA, you’ll need to hold a bachelor’s degree if you don’t already have one.