Sterile Processing Tech vs Surgical Tech: Which Is Right for You?

December 18, 2018


Sterile processing technician and surgical technologist: they may sound like two parts of the same job, but these are both up-and-coming allied health careers with their own unique features.

For those looking for a new path that involves surgery, either can be a great choice, depending on what’s most important to you.

Both careers support the work of the surgical team in a hospital or clinic and are also integral to making surgeries run smoothly. They do, however, require different educational paths and fulfill different roles. Let’s take a look at some of the differences and similarities.

Sterile Processing Tech Job Description

Photo by Chokniti Khongchum from Pexels 


What does a sterile processing technician do? If you’ve never heard of this career, that might be because it goes by many different names in various workplaces, including:

  • Sterilization Technician
  • Central Service Technician
  • Surgical Processing Technician
  • Instrument Technician
  • Medical Equipment Preparer

Those job titles should give you a better idea of what these technicians do. They’re responsible for ensuring that equipment is cleaned, sterilized, and prepared for surgeries (and other medical and lab procedures).

Your tasks on the job might include cleaning items that have been brought in from previous procedures, preparing and setting up equipment for upcoming procedures, putting away cleaned equipment, and ensuring that all equipment is in good condition. You may also be in charge of checking inventory and restocking.

Surgical Tech Job Description

What do surgical techs do? In terms of preparatory and clean-up, surgical tech jobs have a lot in common. Also known as operating room technicians, surgical technologists help set up operating rooms before surgery and ensure that the necessary equipment is sterilized and ready to go.

They may help surgeons, doctors, and nurses with scrubbing in before surgery, ensure that patients are prepped, and assist surgeons by passing instruments or holding equipment/body parts in place during surgery. Some surgical techs might clean and prepare incision sites on patients, or may even learn to operate robotic surgical equipment.

A Day on the Job as a Sterilization Technician

Photo by Cedric Fauntleroy from Pexels 


As a sterile processing tech, you’re the go-to person for the clinic’s autoclaves. What's an autoclave? It’s a machine used to properly sterilize medical equipment. Instrument technicians make sure that autoclaves are well-maintained and record each piece of equipment that’s sterilized inside.

You’ll clean instruments prior to sterilization, record sterilization test results, and generally keep track of equipment and supplies. With the cleanliness of medical supplies literally in your hands, you play a vital role in the well-being of patients (hospitals can face major problems and lawsuits when equipment isn't properly sterilized).

Sterilization techs deliver equipment throughout their hospitals or clinics, and some techs are responsible for delivering and setting up medical equipment for outpatients.

A Day on the Job as a Surgical Tech

Surgical techs don’t work independently as often as sterile processing techs. They might start their day setting up an operating room with the proper equipment and supplies, then help the rest of the surgical team get ready before a patient arrives.

Once a patient is present, scrub techs might help to prepare them for the surgery by making sure that they’re comfortable. When the surgery begins, they’ll have tools and equipment on-hand when the surgeon asks for them. Then they may transport the patient to the recovery room and restock the operating room for the next procedure.

Sterile Processing Tech Workplaces and Hours

The majority of sterile processing technician jobs are in processing, central supply, and sterile supply departments in hospitals. However, some techs find work in surgical centers, dental surgeries, outpatient clinics, and doctors’ offices. Working hours will depend on your workplace.

Most surgical centers, clinics, and physicians’ offices maintain regular daytime hours during the week. In a hospital, you may work a regular weekday schedule, but may also be called on to work overnight, weekend, or holiday shifts – medical emergencies happen at all hours!

Surgical Tech Workplaces and Hours

Photo by Tom Swinnen from Pexels 


Workplace locations are similar for surgical technologists, with over 70% working in hospitals, and the others mainly working in clinics, outpatient surgical centers, and doctors’ offices. Within the hospital, many techs find work in emergency rooms, while others work with scheduled day surgeries.

Work hours are more likely to vary than for sterile processing techs. In a hospital, you might work on rotation in different surgical areas. One week, you may be in pediatric or cardiac surgery and emergency surgery the next. Surgical techs may work on-call, with the possibility of being called into work at any hour to assist during a major emergency.

Sterile Processing Tech Job Prospects

In 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that just over 54,000 American workers were employed in the medical equipment preparation field. With an 11% growth rate forecast through 2026, this career is growing faster than average, like most surgery-related occupations.

What about advancement? In larger facilities, technicians can advance to become managers of central service and processing departments, which might pave their way to other future management positions. If becoming a surgical tech still piques your interest later, you can also move into that area with more training.

Surgical Tech Job Prospects

Surgical technologist jobs are also on the rise with a growth rate of 12%. In 2016, nearly 108,000 Americans worked as surgical techs, with a projected increase of another 12,600 jobs by 2026. Advances in medical technology (as well as the numbers of surgeries performed) have helped contribute to this growth.

For anyone with an upward trajectory in mind, it’s common for surgical techs to advance into a surgical assistant role to gain a more hands-on role during surgery. This may involve additional training or on-the-job experience provided by an employer. Techs can also develop specializations in different areas of surgery, which opens doors for more future opportunities.

Sterile Processing Tech Salary and Surgical Tech Salary

How much does a sterile processing technician make? According to BLS, the median salary is $35,370, but top earners can make much more, with the highest earners in California, for example, making around $67,000 (top earners in New Jersey make between $50-60,000).

For a surgical tech, the median salary hovers around $46,000. The highest salaries are typically located in outpatient care centers, and the lowest can be found in dental offices. In New Jersey, it’s one of the higher paying healthcare careers you can enter after finishing a certificate program.

Sterile Processing Tech Training

How do you become a sterile processing tech? Programs to train workers in this growing area are starting to emerge. These programs can run for as few as 10 weeks up to two years, though the majority run somewhere between six and nine months. You’ll need a high school diploma or GED to apply to most programs.

A few programs can be completed online, but quality sterile processing technician schools include a clinical internship as part of your education. This is an important way to gain hands-on experience in your new career, and sometimes a job is offered at the end, directly from the internship location.

In your sterile processing tech program, you’ll study areas like sterilization techniques, microbiology, infection control, anatomy, surgical instrumentation, and safety and risk management.

Certification is strongly recommended as most employers prefer hiring certified sterile processing technicians. Certification is available from the International Association of Healthcare Central Service Material Management (IAHCSMM) or the Certification Board for Sterile Processing and Distribution (CBSPD). 

Sterile Processing Technician Program


Surgical Tech Training

Most surgical tech training programs take between one and two years, awarding a certificate or associate degree at the end. Programs involve a mix of class instruction and clinical training, with classes on anatomy, biology, and pharmacology, as well as practice through supervised surgical procedures and clinical internships. A high school diploma or GED is required for admission as well.

Surgical tech jobs are more highly-regulated than sterile tech jobs, with eight states requiring a nationally-recognized certification from The National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting or National Center for Competency Testing. 

Surgical Technologist Program


What Makes a Great Sterile Processing Tech?

Does your ideal work environment mainly involve working quietly and independently? Most allied health careers require direct interaction with patients – sterile processing tech is one of the few that doesn't.

Sterile processing technician jobs can be a great choice for introverts who love healthcare, people interested in scientific and lab work in a healthcare environment, and anyone with great attention to detail looking for work they can really focus on. For workers with experience in retail, warehouse, or other inventory work seeking a move to healthcare, this might be the job for you.

What Makes a Great Surgical Tech?

Do you dream of working alongside surgeons? Do you enjoy the thrill of fast-paced, life-or-death situations? Becoming a surgical tech might be the right choice for you. You’ll work in close contact with the surgical team, and though patients won’t always be conscious as you’re working, you’re with them at high-stress moments before and after surgery. If you’re looking for a fast-paced, hands-on role in a surgical team, becoming a scrub tech might be the right choice.

Which Job Is Right for You?

As a surgical technologist, you’ll earn a slightly higher salary, but you’ll also spend more time and money completing your training (and possibly certification). On the job, you’ll face a faster-paced environment, with a more in-depth role in surgery. Closer interactions with patients and other medical staff are also required.

As a sterile processing tech, you’ll jump into the field faster with shorter training times. With advancement potential in management, you may be able to increase your earnings significantly in the future. Sterile processing technicians work more independently with less of the stress from patient interactions, and for those with weak stomachs, less blood.

You’ll be entering a specialized, exciting, and emerging area in healthcare. With both jobs, you’ll get hands-on work with lots of variety. You’ll also earn middle-class wages and face a field with high demand for workers. In either career, you’re taking a step into the exciting area of surgery and growing field of allied healthcare!

Want to learn more about how to become a sterilization technician? Read our Sterile Processing Technician Occupation Guide