What Do Nurses Do in the Operating Room?

Updated on December 12, 2017
k@ri profile image

Kari has been an operating room nurse for 25 years. She has been everything from staff nurse to DON.


"I’m not telling you it’s going to be easy, I’m telling you it’s going to be worth it."

— Art Williams

What Are the Roles of an Operating Room Nurse

There are many roles that nurses perform in an operating room. The surgical nurse can circulate, float and scrub. With more experience, the OR nurse can become a first assistant, a charge nurse, or a manager. This article will focus on circulating, scrubbing, and floating.

Circulating Nurse

Assessing the patient.
Assessing the patient. | Source

The Circulating Nurse Role

As a circulating nurse you are in charge of the room. You ensure hospital policy and procedure are followed. You will constantly be performing infection control duties. Patient advocacy is your main job. Everything you do, you do to keep your patient safe.

When you are circulating you will help open the room and bring in the necessary equipment. You ensure the stand-by supplies and instrumentation is available. After you assess the patient, you give report to the scrub person.

During surgery, you handle all non-sterile functions. From opening needed supplies and instruments to documenting everything that is happening, circulating is a busy job. Some days you get in that "zone", you love the music playing, and everything you do seems right. These are the days you live for. The feeling of satisfaction after a good day is the reason you put up with the bad days.

After the surgery, you bring the patient to the post anesthesia care unit (PACU), give report to the nurse there, and it all starts again. Cleaning the room, opening the supplies for the case, and assessing your patient is a constant loop.

For a more detailed explanation of the circulator role you can read this.

Scrub Nurse

The scrub nurse is part of the sterile field with a perfect view of the operation.
The scrub nurse is part of the sterile field with a perfect view of the operation. | Source

The Scrub Nurse Role

I love being a circulating nurse, but I love the scrub role more. As the scrub nurse, you are part of the sterile field. You are right there where the operation is being performed. With a perfect view, you see all that is going on. You see first hand how truly amazing the human body is.

Scrubbing also helps you to be a better circulator. It is hard to anticipate the surgeon's needs if you do not know what s/he wants. Scrubbing gives you the extra experience needed.

As a scrub nurse, you assist with cleaning your operating room. You gather the necessary supplies and instrumentation. You double checking everything, because if anything is missing the surgeon will look to you first. A thick skin is required as you will be on the "front line" every time something is wrong.

Setting up all the instrumentation and supplies is your responsibility when you are the scrub nurse. You make order out of chaos by neatly laying out everything that will be needed. You organize it all so that the circulating nurse can see everything.

During surgery, you will hand the surgeon the needed instrumentation, supplies and suture (the needle and thread to sew with). You watch the surgery to anticipate what the surgeon will need next. After you have worked with the same surgeon a bit, it is like you have ESP, handing him/her what is wanted without any words being said.

At the end of surgery, you initiate the "counts" (counting all the instrumentation, supplies and suture). You keep yourself and your table of supplies sterile until the patient leaves the room. You prepare the instruments to go to the central sterile department so they can be cleaned and sterilized.

Float Nurse

Float nurse getting the OR ready for the next patient
Float nurse getting the OR ready for the next patient | Source

The Float Nurse Role

As a float nurse, you do a little bit of everything in the operating room. You pull the instrumentation for the day's cases. You give coffee and lunch breaks to the nurses in the rooms. You help clean and prepare the rooms, readying them for their next patients. Holding extremities (arms and legs) for preps and being available to help position are normal activities. When you are part of the float crew, you will pick the supplies for the next day's cases.

Many people think being a float nurse is easier than being in a room. Personally, I would rather be in a room. No matter how busy I am in a room, I am always busier when floating . When you are a float nurse you must be very time conscious. You need to know when cases are ending and when cases are starting. Close contact with the charge nurse is a must. As a float nurse, you need to know all changes to the schedule.

You must be very flexible as the float nurse. In the operating room everything is always changing. You may be opening a case, only to find you are needed immediately in another room. Emergencies may arrive that will send your plans for the day askew.

It is a thankless job. If you are in a room helping one crew, and someone else looks for you, that someone else will immediately assume you are in the lounge taking a break. You may get the third degree from this someone else. Many nurses do not understand the role of the float nurse. Unless you become familiar with the job and its responsibilities, you will think it is easy.

Floating with an experienced float nurse is an excellent way for you to become acquainted with the operating room. You get to see many different cases while giving breaks. You get to see different ways to prep and position. You get to learn the stock room and the instrumentation room. I recommend asking to float when you are new.

Ways To Help Yourself Succeed

These three roles are the main jobs of a nurse in the operating room. Any time you are not in a case you should be picking cases for the next day to learn where things are. If possible try to help in the Central Sterile Dept. Helping here will allow you to learn which instruments are in each set. It is important to know where everything is.

In each of these three roles, patient safety and patient advocacy are your main focus. Everything you do should be linked to accepted standards of practice. In the OR, where everything is changing, it is important to spend some of your free time reading up on new equipment, new techniques and new standards. Operating room nursing is truly a profession, not just a job.

Which Role Do You Like Best?

If you are currently working in an OR, which role do you like best.

See results

This Video Will Give An Idea Of What It Is Like Inside An Operating Room-The Scrub Nurse Role Is The Same As The Surgical Technologist

This Video Gives Another View Of The Operating Room

© 2017 Kari Poulsen


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    • k@ri profile image

      Kari Poulsen 7 weeks ago from Ohio

      Dora, Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I loved OR nursing. I miss it every day. I have trained quite a few nurses to the OR. I love that too. Every one taught me also. :)

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 7 weeks ago from The Caribbean

      Thank you, Kari for another detailed lesson about nurses in the OR. Seemed that you truly enjoyed your work. You'd be a good tutor too.

    • k@ri profile image

      Kari Poulsen 7 weeks ago from Ohio

      Nikki, thanks for stopping by! I think each role has it's own challenges. :)

    • k@ri profile image

      Kari Poulsen 7 weeks ago from Ohio

      Jo, Thank you very much! I like to help others learn. :)

    • nikkikhan10 profile image

      Nikki Khan 7 weeks ago from London

      Very interesting and informative article Kari,,I like circulator nurse as she deals with patients.Her role seems to be more chellening and admiring.

      Thanks for sharing dear.

    • jo miller profile image

      Jo Miller 7 weeks ago from Tennessee

      Very informative, Kari. I am learning so much about nursing from your articles.

    • k@ri profile image

      Kari Poulsen 7 weeks ago from Ohio

      Venkatachari M, Thank you for the kind comment. I am so glad I was able to be a nurse. Getting paid for helping others is the most wonderful career possible. Blessings back at you!

    • Venkatachari M profile image

      Venkatachari M 7 weeks ago from Hyderabad, India

      Very beautiful and informative articles about the duties and roles of Nurses. As everybody mentioned below, the nurses are the backbone of any surgeon or doctor. They are like mothers and sisters taking utmost care of their patients. I respect them very much and especially those like you.

      You have chosen a very nice career in your life which everybody loves and respects. My good wishes and blessings to you.

    • k@ri profile image

      Kari Poulsen 7 weeks ago from Ohio

      Thank you Linda! I appreciate you reading them and commenting. I'm going to write many more hopefully. :)

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 7 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is another very informative article, Kari. I appreciate the education that I'm getting by reading your hubs about nursing!

    • k@ri profile image

      Kari Poulsen 7 weeks ago from Ohio

      Linda, thank you for your kindness. I and most nurses are very conscientious in our responsibilities. I know I was a very capable nurse, and I had a lot of company in that regard.

    • k@ri profile image

      Kari Poulsen 7 weeks ago from Ohio

      Thank you, Bill! I agree nurses are the backbone of the hospital. The only reason people have to stay in a hospital is that they need nursing care. The best reward, for a nurse, is that their caring helped another.

    • Carb Diva profile image

      Linda Lum 7 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

      I agree with Bill. Nurses are miracle workers, angels without wings. I would know that I or my loved ones would be in very capable hands if tended to by you.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 7 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      I personally think most nurses walk on water and are the backbone of any hospital, so you've got my vote. :) Great information, of course...thank you for what you do and have done to help others.

    • k@ri profile image

      Kari Poulsen 7 weeks ago from Ohio

      FlourishAnyway, You flatter me. But, I do think the surgeons liked having me in the room. Thank you!

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 7 weeks ago from USA

      I would definitely want someone as competent and passionate about their job as you if I were a surgeon or a patient.