Surgical technologists & sterile processing technicians are crucial to supporting patient care and are some of the most accessible jobs in healthcare. However, each of these careers has something different to offer.

If you’re interested in a healthcare career but don’t want to dedicate four or more years to a degree, you should explore the possibility of becoming surgical tech or sterile processing technician.

Read below to learn more about surgical tech and sterile processing tech careers and which may better suit your strengths.

What Is a Surgical Technologist?

Surgical technologists are essential to the surgical team. They ensure the surgeon has all the support they need to take care of the patient and provide excellent care.

This is a critical role in the operating room. They prepare the surgical instruments that will be used during an operation and provide what the surgeon needs during the procedure.

What Is a Sterile Processing Technician?

While surgical providers are extremely important in any healthcare institution, they would be useless without sterilized, clean equipment. Sterilization kills bacteria and prevents the transmission of diseases and infections.

A sterile processing technician is responsible for keeping all equipment in an institution sterilized and ready for use. Another common title for this job is medical equipment preparer.

Sterile Processing Tech vs. Surgical Tech

Both of these roles support healthcare institutions by preparing supplies and ensuring a safe environment. But it’s important not to get these two roles confused as they offer very different opportunities for those in the field.

There are some key differences between a sterile processing technician and a surgical technologist. Here’s a look at the main components of each job to help you decide which one might be a better fit for you.

The Duties

Whereas a sterile processing tech will focus only on preparing and sterilizing equipment, a surgical tech has far more interactions with patients and doctors. Surgical technologists assist surgeons directly where sterile processing techs work behind the scenes.

The duties of a surgical tech include:

  • Preparing operating rooms and setting up sterile fields, equipment, supplies, and solutions.
  • Anticipating the surgeon’s needs throughout the procedure.
  • During the procedure Surgical Technologist passes instruments, fluids, and supplies to the surgeon.
  • Having extensive knowledge of surgical instruments and procedures
  • Advance in aseptic technique

Prepare patients for surgery

Compare this to the duties of a sterile processing tech:

  • Operating decontamination equipment
  • Determining if equipment needs further cleaning
  • Cleaning instruments, equipment, and some machines
  • Taking inventory of supplies
  • Disposing of waste material

The Work Environment

Surgical technologists work in hospitals or surgery centers, or as private scrub techs. Sterile processing techs may similarly be hired directly by healthcare facilities, but they may also be sourced from medical equipment suppliers.

Education and Training Requirements

Education requirements vary by state. The best way to ensure a high likelihood of being hired for these jobs is to have a high school diploma plus a certificate or degree.

For a sterile processing techs, programs generally take 6 to 18 months while surgical technologists often take 1 to 2 years.

Surgical techs must have knowledge of different surgical procedures as well as extensive knowledge of surgical instruments and aseptic techniques.

When researching surgical technologist training programs, it’s important to seek out programs that are CAAHEP accredited, such as the program at Great Lakes. Also in the state of Pennsylvania, it is mandatory that surgical techs become certified surgical technologists (CST).

Salaries & Career Outlook

The median annual surgical tech salary is $48,530 whereas it’s $38,220 for sterile processing techs. This makes a surgical technologist career a better choice for more income.

However, the job prospects are equally bright for both professions. Demand is high for all healthcare professions due to the aging baby boomer generation. Both these jobs are crucial to keeping hospitals and clinics safe.

The Benefits of Becoming a Surgical Tech or Sterile Processing Tech

Beyond their basic definitions, there are the everyday benefits of each job. Weighing the advantages of each can help you better understand which will be the right fit based on your interests, passions, and personality.

Sterile Processing Technician

1. Little Patient/Doctor Interaction

Some people are extroverts and others are introverts. If you prefer to work independently with fewer interpersonal interactions, becoming a sterile processing technician may be the right choice. Here, the focus is on the equipment rather than working closely with the doctors or patients. This is ideal for those who would rather have less face-to-face time.

2. Not Stuck Behind a Desk

If staying in one place for extended periods makes you restless, you’ll enjoy the on-your-feet aspect of sterile processing. Because you are tasked with keeping all the equipment clean, you’ll need to move across the hospital collecting and sterilizing equipment. It doesn’t get much better for people who like to move around during their workday.

Surgical Technologist

1. Give Direct Support to Surgeons

Everyone in the healthcare sector is making a meaningful difference. But as a surgical technologist, you get to see the difference you’re making up close. You’ll be helping a surgeon potentially save a patient’s life, and you get to be there every step of the way. If you like the instant gratification of seeing your work in action, this may be a good career path for you.

2. Every Day Looks Different

If you’re someone who is easily bored, doing the same tasks every day may lead to burnout and dissatisfaction. This is an essential consideration in choosing a surgical tech career vs. a sterile processing tech career. As a surgical tech you’ll have new patients and procedures each day. This can make each day at work exciting.

Even if you specialize in assisting with a specific type of surgery, each patient, procedure, and medical scenario is different.

Start Your New Career in Healthcare

So these are the main differences between surgical technologists & sterile processing technicians. Both have excellent job prospects, but surgical techs require more education and generally earn a higher salary. In addition, most surgical techs receive enough education that they can work as a sterile processing tech, which gives them more flexibility.

While Great Lakes does not offer a program for sterile processing, we have an excellent program to become a surgical technologist. It is a great pathway to enter this exciting and lucrative career. Click the button below to learn more about our surgical tech program.

learn about the surgical technologist program