What Does a Surgical Nurse Do?

NursingNovember 02, 2023

What Does a Surgical Nurse Do?                                           

A nurse’s work influences a healthcare facility’s ability to provide optimal patient care. One of the most important examples of this influence is in an operating room (OR) environment. Surgical nurses, also known as perioperative nurses or OR nurses, provide specialized patient care throughout the surgery process. What exactly does a surgical nurse do, and why are their duties so important?

The precise duties of a surgical nurse are complex and varied. Developing an understanding of the role’s responsibilities and the educational requirements for the position.  This will help you determine if pursuing a route to gain the experience and any additional certifications required to become  a specialized surgical nurse role will align with your interests and your desired nursing career path.

Surgical Nurse Job Description

Surgical nurses help coordinate patient care before, during, and after surgery. They’re typically tasked with maintaining a safe patient environment. They also work with other healthcare professionals to ensure that they’re fully equipped with what they need to provide the right kind of surgical patient care.

Three broad types of surgical nurse roles are available. The first type is a scrub nurse. These specialized registered nurses (RNs) focus their duties mainly on directly preparing for the surgical process. The second type is a circulating nurse; these RNs work outside the sterile field and don’t participate in the surgical process.  

A third type of surgical nurse role, the RN first assistant, can also be pursued with further education and training. These nurses manage patient care before, during, and after a surgery. 

Work Environment for Surgical Nurses

While surgical nurses always work in surgical environments, they can work in various facilities. They’re often employed in acute care hospitals, which provide different levels of trauma care. They can also work in outpatient surgery centers, which conduct surgeries that don’t require overnight hospital stays.

Scrub Nurse Duties

Scrub nurses assist the surgical team by donning sterile masks, gloves, and gowns and passing instruments during surgery. Following the operation, the job involves clearing away the tools and preparing the patient for transport to the recovery room. They also count the instruments and equipment used during surgery (sponges, medical supplies) to ensure that everything used is accounted for and that nothing was accidentally left elsewhere, such as inside the patient.

Circulating Nurse Duties

Circulating nurses take a more indirect approach to patient care in surgical situations. Their duties have a broader perspective, focusing on maintaining a safe and comfortable environment. Their responsibilities include inspecting surgical equipment, verifying the patient’s identity, and seeing that the patient’s family has signed the necessary consent forms. Other duties involve assisting the anesthesiologist with a patient and conferring with the surgeon about special concerns that can affect the patient’s care. 

Registered Nurse First Assistant Duties

RN first assistants are responsible for a wide range of tasks. Their duties include watching for complications and monitoring the patient’s vital signs, including blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration. Should trouble arise, RN first assistants will immediately alert the doctor. Their role also involves performing CPR, controlling bleeding, suturing wounds, and applying dressings and bandages. They may also perform patient assessments before surgery and before discharge.

Surgical Nurse Education, Experience, and Fundamental Skills

Regardless of what a surgical nurse does through their various duties, their work requires a finely honed level of knowledge and skills. To obtain this acumen, candidates must commonly complete several steps before pursuing the role.

Education and Licensure

An undergraduate degree is typically required to pursue RN roles such as surgical nurse. An Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) can deepen your knowledge and skills to prepare you for an RN career. 

Because all RNs must be licensed in their state of practice, you must also pass the National Council Licensure Exam for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) before applying for a surgical nurse role. You can take this exam after you earn your undergraduate degree.


Surgical nurses must develop experience in a supervised setting before pursuing the role.  In many states, RNs are required to have two years or more of experience before pursuing certification to become a scrub or OR nurse.  This experience will allow them to apply the knowledge gained in the classroom in an environment conducive to proper patient care. Nursing school programs typically feature coursework built around hands-on training in a controlled environment. You may also be able to earn further clinical experience through an internship, a mentoring program, or by volunteering.


Surgical nurses must have strong scientific and medical knowledge. Understanding concepts such as anatomy, physiology, and microbiology allows professionals to recognize and interpret potential issues that may develop throughout the surgical and postsurgical process. 

Attention to detail is also an essential skill for surgical nurses. This skill applies to monitoring patients to ensure that they detect any complications. It also applies to simple yet crucial tasks, such as taking inventory of instruments and equipment used in a surgery.

Surgical nurses must also be skilled communicators. They typically work with other healthcare professionals before, during, and after surgery, so they need to be able to relay vital information about a patient’s condition in clear, unambiguous terms.

Surgical Nurse Job Outlook

While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t specifically project  job growth for the surgical nurse role, it does project approximately 193,100 open positions for RNs each year between 2022 and 2032. These openings stem from increased demand for healthcare services and the transition of RNs into retirement, more advanced nursing roles, or different fields.

Take On a Crucial Role in Healthcare

Surgical nurses provide care at a unique time in the overall patient journey. Whether the patient is in need of a simple outpatient procedure or a more complex surgery brought about by a traumatic event, surgical nurses help the process run as smoothly and efficiently as possible. Ultimately, their work can be crucial for a healthcare facility looking to improve patient outcomes.

The nursing school programs at Fortis, including the ADN program, can help prepare you to be ready for this important role as you gain experience in the field. Our programs are designed to help you establish a strong knowledge base and skill set to pursue your chosen nursing role with confidence. Learn more about how the Fortis nursing team can help you make a difference in the nursing profession.

Recommended Readings
4 Growing Technologies in Nursing
5 Ways Nurses Are Making a Difference in Patients’ Lives
6 Essential Clinical Nursing Skills

Incredible Health, “Become an Operating Room (OR) Nurse in 3 Steps”
Indeed, How to Become a Surgical Nurse (With FAQs)
Indeed, What Does a Circulating Nurse Do? (With Skills and Salary)
June Medical, “The Expanded Role of a Surgical Nurse in 2022”
National Council of State Boards of Nursing, NCSBN Examinations
ShiftMed, What Is a Scrub Nurse?
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Registered Nurses