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Surgeon, Surgical Technologist, Surgical Nurse—What’s the Difference?

Posted Tuesday, Aug 18, 2020 by Altierus

The operating room is where lives are saved and improved. It’s also a fast-paced workplace with many pairs of hands at the ready, helping ensure procedures run as smoothly as possible.

If you’ve never been a surgical patient, the number of people in the OR for major operations may surprise you. For example, during a caesarean section (C-section) to deliver a baby, there could be as many as nine people in the operating room.[i]

Each of these professionals has a specific and important role in the operating room. To an outside observer, however, trying to figure out who is who can be difficult. This article explains the differences between three commonly confused members of the OR team: surgeons, surgical nurses, and surgical technologists.


Surgeons are the physicians who plan, direct, and carry out surgical operations. They are MDs with at least 11 years of college education under their belts: four years to earn a bachelor’s degree, four years of medical school, and three or more years training in a surgical residency.[ii] Surgeons with a specialized practice area–for example, ophthalmologists (eye surgeons) who treat cataracts–may complete additional training after their initial surgical residency.[iii]

Surgical Nurses

Surgical nurses, also known as perioperative nurses, are registered nurses (RNs) who take on many roles in the operating room. One of the most common roles is the circulating nurse, sometimes called the “circulator”.

Circulating nurses are concerned with protecting the patient’s safety at all times. They will move around the operating room (“circulate”) performing checks on equipment, observing the work of the surgeon or surgical technologists, monitoring the patient’s vital signs and more. They are there to catch problems before they happen and solve them if they do. They may also act as a liaison between the surgeon and the patient or the surgeon and the patient’s family. [iv]

To become a surgical/perioperative nurse, the first step is to become an RN. At Altierus Career College in Tampa, we offer an Associate of Science in Nursing program featuring the clinical training, medical knowledge and licensure exam prep you need to get started in a nursing career.

You will need to pursue additional work experience and training to eventually become a surgical nurse.

Surgical Technologists

Surgical technologists (sometimes also called “scrub techs”) work under RN and surgeon supervision. Their primary responsibilities include:

They may also clean and dress the surgical wound after the procedure and transport patients to the recovery room. In addition, surgical techs may help other members of the OR team don their surgical gowns, headgear, and masks.

To become a surgical technologist, you’ll need an associate degree. At our Norcross and Houston campuses, Altierus offers an Associate of Science in Surgical Technology program that combines clinical knowledge with hands-on training in our labs, plus clinical experience. Although most states don’t require surgical techs to obtain licensure, there is separate industry certification. Some employers prefer or require new hires to have this certification, so we help you prepare for it–at no additional cost.

Get Started in a Healthcare Career with Altierus

Interested in becoming an RN or surgical technologist? Contact Altierus Career College today to learn more about our all-inclusive associate degree programs!