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What Does a Scrub Nurse Do?

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An Essential Member of the Surgical Team

Scrub nurses are registered nurses (RNs) who assist in the operating room. Since they work in the OR in the sterile field near the patient, they “scrub in” just as surgeons do. Wait—don’t all nurses wash their hands thoroughly before treating patients? Yes, but they don’t “scrub in” like scrub nurses. Think of the hospital TV shows you’ve seen, from “ER” to “Scrubs,” and how the surgeons wash, not just their hands, but their arms, too. Afterwards, they raise their arms so they don’t touch or accidentally hit something and become re-contaminated. Scrub nurses also must sterilize themselves in this manner. A number of schools offer online degrees in the field, so you can maintain your family life as you study to become a scrub nurse.

Job Description

After scrubbing in and putting on sterile clothing, scrub nurses prepare the operating room for surgery. They lay out the instruments that the surgeon will need, which varies depending on the type of operation. During the surgery, they assist by handing the sterile instruments as needed and helping with other requests when asked. Scrub nurses are also responsible for monitoring the patient during the surgery.

Education Requirements

You must have a minimum of a two-year associate’s degree to become a scrub nurse. However, since many hospitals prefer new hires with a BSN, earning a four-year bachelor of science in nursing degree (BSN) opens the door to increased opportunities. The Association of periOperative Registered Nurses (AORN) recommends that you obtain a BSN to improve your job outlook. The degree also delivers a higher salary. However, you may wish to earn a your RN first and then obtain a job to take advantage of the tuition assistance that many employers offer.

In addition to the degree, RNs and BSNs must work as a nurse for several years and gain experience in critical care settings before they can become scrub nurses. Critical care settings include the emergency room (ER), the critical care unit (CCU) and the intensive care unit (ICU).

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the median salary for all nurses, including scrub nurses, as $68,450, as of May 2016. Median salaries are the midpoint in a list of salaries, with half higher and half falling lower. This figure includes both RNs and BSNs, but BSN salaries are typically at the higher end, while RN salaries are lower.

About the Industry

Scrub nurses work in health care facilities that perform surgical procedures, such as hospital operating rooms, ambulatory care centers and physicians’ offices.

Although some scrub nurses work part-time, they usually work eight- to 10-hour shifts. Although surgeries are usually scheduled during daytime hours, scrub nurses may be called in when a patient needs emergency surgery in the evening or night.

Years of Experience

After the two years of the critical care nursing experience necessary to become a scrub nurse, additional opportunities are available to advance in the field.

With two years and 2,400 hours of scrub nursing experience, you can pursue certification, which involves passing a competency test to earn the Certified Perioperative Nurse (CNOR) certification. This shows employers that you are an advanced scrub nurse with experience and documented skills. After working as a CNOR for two years, you can become a registered nurse first assistant (RNFA). This nurse works next to the surgeon and assists during surgical procedures.

Job Growth Trend

The need for nurses in general, including scrub nurses, is expected to grow by 15 percent from 2016 to 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The aging baby boomer population will require more surgeries, providing employment opportunities for scrub nurses at all levels.


Barbara Bean-Mellinger is a freelance writer who lives in the Washington, D.C. area who has written about careers and education for,, and more. Barbara holds a B.S. from the University of Pittsburgh and has won numerous awards for her writing.

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