8 Surgical Specialties For Registered Nurses

There are several surgical nursing careers you may pursue once you become a licensed RN. This article provides insight into a few of those - from what you need to do to get there, to what you should expect once you do.


One of the most important parts of pursuing a career in nursing is deciding what your specialty will be. There are many different types of specialties for registered nurses, many of which involve working directly with surgeons. Pursuing a career as a nurse specializing in surgical operations provides job security, a decent salary, and the knowledge you are making a positive difference.

  

In today’s article, you’ll read about 8 surgical nursing specialties you may pursue once you are a licensed Registered Nurse (RN). For each one you’ll see:

  

- A brief description of the career

  

- A list of typical duties

  

- The educational path to follow

  

- The type of experience to obtain

  

- Certification and recertification requirements

  

Snapshot Of The 8 Surgical Nursing Specialties


Below is a chart that lists the 8 surgical nursing specialties that this article will cover. The table provides the name of the position and the type of nursing environment to expect. All of the roles require you to be a licensed RN.

     

Specialty Name Nursing Environment(s)
Cardiac Cath Lab Nurse (RN-BC)
Clinical, Emergency, Surgical
Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA) Advanced Practice, Surgical
Ophthalmic Nurse (CRNO) Clinical, Surgical
Otorhinolaryngology Nurse (CORLN) Clinical, Surgical
Perianesthesia Nurse (CPAN / CAPA) Surgical
Perioperative Nurse (CNS-CP) Surgical
Plastic Surgery Nurse (CPSN) / (CANS)   Clinical, Surgical
Transplant Nurse (CCTN) Surgical

  

As you read details about the various surgical nursing positions, you’ll learn the general duties performed, the educational path to follow, and information on the certification process.

  

To become a surgical nurse requires dedication and significant training. However, if you pursue any of these roles, you will find yourself with a gratifying career.

  

Surgical Specialties For Registered Nurses

  

1. Cardiac Cath Lab Nurse – RN-BC

  

Another name for a cardiac cath lab nurse is a cardiac-vascular nurse. This type of surgical nurse assists surgeons with the insertion of a catheter into a chamber or vessel of the heart. This procedure is used to diagnose or treat heart conditions. It’s possible you’ll also assist with coronary catheterization. These procedures are performed in highly specialized labs using advanced technologies in cardiac care.

  

Typically, a cardiac cath lab nurse will assist in some, if not all of the following types of procedures:

    

- Angioplasties

  

- Pacemakers and cardioverter-defibrillators (ICDs) implants

  

- Stent placements

  

- Valvuloplasty

  

To become a certified cardiac cath lab nurse, you’ll take the following steps:

  

- Obtain an associate or bachelor degree in nursing

  

- Obtain a Basic Life Support (BLS) Certification

  

- Obtain an Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) Certification

  

- Pass the NCLEX-RN

  

- Obtain a Cardiac Vascular Nursing Certification (RN-BC) from the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). As stated on their site, eligibility for this certification is extensive and requires the following:

  

- Hold a current, active, unencumbered RN license

  

- Participate in a six-month cardiac cath lab training program run by a hospital

  

- Work two years in an ER, ICU or coronary care unit

  

- Have practiced the equivalent of 2 years full-time as an RN

  

- Have a minimum of 2,000 hours of clinical practice in cardiac-vascular nursing within the last 3 years

  

- Have completed 30 hours of continuing education in cardiac-vascular nursing within the last 3 years

  

Once you receive the RN-BC credential, it will have to be renewed every five years.

  

Because eligibility requirements, fees, and continuing education (CE) information changes as the industry does, check the ANCC website for details when you’re ready to begin the education process.

  

2. Nurse Anesthetist – CRNA

   

As the name implies, a nurse anesthetist gives anesthesia and anesthesia-related care to patients before, during, and after surgery. A CRNA faces a variety of situations and unexpected events during operations. That’s why the path into this field is so intensive. Nurse anesthetists are among the most in-demand, and highest-paid nursing professions.

    

Some of the responsibilities of a nurse anesthetist include:

  

- Assisting with outpatient procedures

  

- Helping patients with pain management

  

- Performing epidurals

  

- Providing operating and emergency room care

  

The steps to becoming a nurse anesthetist are:

  

- Obtain a bachelor’s degree in nursing

  

- Obtain a Basic Life Support (BLS) Certification

  

- Obtain an Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) Certification

  

- Pass the NCLEX-RN

  

- Earn a master’s degree in nursing

  

- Work a minimum of twelve months in acute care (either in an ICU or ER)

  

- Pass the National Certification Exam (NCE) facilitated by the National Board of Certification and Recertification for Nurse Anesthetists (NBCRNA). Per their site, eligibility requirements for a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA) are:

  

- Hold a current, active, unencumbered RN license

  

- Complete a nurse anesthesia educational program accredited by the Council on Accreditation of Nurses Anesthesia Educational Programs (COA) within the previous two calendar years

  

The Continued Professional Certification (CPC) is their recertification program. It consists of two four-year cycles. The CPC is a relatively new program, so it is always best to check the NBCRNA website for current details. They provide detailed manuals and samples of test questions.

  

3. Ophthalmic Nurse – CRNO

 

As you may know, the field of ophthalmology involves eye care beyond optometry. An ophthalmic nurse cares for individuals faced with severe eye disorders and serves as a vital member of surgical teams.

  

Some duties of an ophthalmic nurse include:

  

- Conducting pre-operative assessments.

  

- Helping patients with glaucoma, cataracts, and other eye trauma.

  

- Positioning patients and verifying surgical sites.

  

- Serving as a circulating or scrub nurse during eye surgeries.

  

To become an ophthalmic nurse, the steps you follow are:

 

- Obtain your nursing diploma, associate or bachelor degree in nursing

  

- Obtain a Basic Life Support (BLS) Certification

  

- Obtain an Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) Certification

  

- Pass the NCLEX-RN

  

- Work a minimum of two years as an RN in ophthalmic nursing

  

- Pass the Ophthalmic Nursing certification exam administered by the National Certifying Board for Ophthalmic Registered Nurses (NCBORN). As their site states, eligibility requirements to take the test are:

  

- Hold a current, active, unencumbered RN license

  

- Have two years of full-time or the equivalent (4,000 hours) experience in ophthalmic registered nursing practice

  

Continuing education and recertification is required for a Certified Registered Nurse in Ophthalmology (CRNO) every five years. The certification exam itself is only given twice a year. It is always advisable to check the NCBORN website for current details. You can also download manuals and outlines about requirements and the test itself.

   

Cpan Recertification

  

4. Otorhinolaryngology Nurse – CORLN

 

Otorhinolaryngology nurses provide care for patients facing illnesses, diseases, or disorders related to the head. Areas include the skin, neck, ears, nose, oral cavities, and cranial nerves.

  

Some responsibilities of an otorhinolaryngology nurse are:

  

- Assisting with radiation treatments.  

- Diagnosing patients.

  

- Providing support for patients undergoing medical and surgical procedures.

  

The steps to becoming an otorhinolaryngology nurse are:

  

- Obtain your nursing diploma, associate or bachelor degree in nursing

  

- Obtain a Basic Life Support (BLS) Certification

  

- Obtain an Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) Certification

  

- Pass the NCLEX-RN

  

- Work a minimum of three years as an RN

  

- Pass the Certified Otorhinolaryngology Nurse (CORLN) exam facilitated by the Society of Otorhinolaryngology and Head-Neck Nurses (SOHN). As you will note from their site, eligibility requirements are:

  

- Hold a current, active, unencumbered RN license

  

- Have at least three years of experience in otorhinolaryngology and head-neck nursing practice

  

Upon passing, you will become a Certified Otorhinolaryngology Nurse (CORLN). The test is only offered twice a year, so checking the SOHN website for updated information is always the best practice. Currently, CORLN recertification is required every five years.

  

5. Perianesthesia Nurse – CPAN and/or CAPA

 

Perianesthesia nurses, or recovery room nurses, carefully monitor patients as they recover from the effects of anesthesia after surgery. Perianesthesia nurses are well trained on how to handle patients with unexpected reactions upon awakening such as confusion or pain. They often consult with patients before and after surgery and provide information about ongoing care at home once the patient is discharged.

  

Typical duties of a perianesthesia nurse include:

  

- Caring for patients in recovery

  

- Giving patients recovery tips for home

  

- Prepping patients for surgery

  

There are two certifications for a peri-anesthesia nurse, with each covering a specific phase of anesthesia. The first, CPAN, certifies a nurse to care for patients in the post-anesthesia phase. The second, CAPA, is more extensive. It certifies a nurse to care for patients in pre-anesthesia, the day of the surgery, and post-anesthesia and extended care. You can be certified in one or the other, or opt for dual certification.

  

The educational flow to become a perianesthesia nurse is:

  

- Obtain an associate or bachelor degree in nursing

  

- Obtain a Basic Life Support (BLS) Certification

  

- Obtain an Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) Certification

  

- Pass the NCLEX-RN

  

- Apply to take your certification through the American Board of Perianesthesia Nursing (ABPANC)

  

Per the ABPANC site, eligibility requirements for a Certified Post Anesthesia Nurse (CPAN) are:

  

- Hold a current, active, unencumbered RN license

  

- Have 1,800 hours of direct clinical experience caring for patients in post-anesthesia Phase I obtained within the two years prior to applying for initial certification

  

Per the ABPANC site, eligibility requirements for the Certified Ambulatory Perianesthesia Nurse (CAPA) are:

  

- Hold a current, active, unencumbered RN license

  

- Have 1,800 hours of direct clinical experience caring for patients in pre-anesthesia phase, day of surgery/procedure, post-anesthesia Phase II and/or extended care obtained within the two years prior to applying for initial certification

  

Per the ABPANC site, eligibility requirements for dual certification:

  

- Hold a current, active, unencumbered RN license

  

- Direct clinical experience hours required for both CPAN and CAPA (1,800 hours each)

  

Because of the complexity of two potential exams and dual certification, and specific testing dates, it is recommended you visit the ABPANC for details and updates to their handbook.

  

6. Perioperative (Surgical) Nurse – CNS-CP

 

Perioperative nurses care for patients during the entire course of their surgical experience. They monitor patients to ensure they are receiving the best quality of care during surgery. They also serve as intermediaries between the surgical team and the patients’ families. They can be seen assisting in the recovery room, and sharing post-operative tips patients should follow when they return home.

  

Typical duties of perioperative nurses include:

  

- Giving patients recovery tips for home

  

- Interviewing and assessing patients for surgery

  

- Maintaining a sterile operating room throughout surgery

  

- Monitoring patients and coordinating care during surgery

  

The educational path to becoming a perioperative nurse is:

  

- Obtain a bachelor degree in nursing

    

- Obtain a Basic Life Support (BLS) Certification

  

- Obtain an Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) Certification

  

- Pass the NCLEX-RN

  

- Gain experience working in critical care and in the ER

  

- Pass the Certified Nurse Operating Room exam (CNOR) through the Competency and Credentialing Institute (CCI). As their site indicates, eligibility requirements are:

  

- Hold a current, active, unencumbered RN license

  

- Be currently working full-time or part-time in perioperative nursing an area of nursing education, administration, research, or clinical practice.

  

- Complete a minimum of 2 years and 2,400 hours of experience in perioperative nursing, with a minimum of 50% (1,200 hours) in an intraoperative setting

  

Recertification for a Clinical Nurse Specialist-Certified Perioperative is required every five years. The CCI site contains updated information on initial certification and renewal.

  

7. Plastic Surgery Nurse – CPSN or CANS

 

Plastic surgery nurses help patients facing or recovering from plastic surgery procedures. They with procedures that range from small and elective, to more complicated operations like facial reconstruction.

  

Typical duties of a plastic surgery nurse include:

  

- Explaining procedures to patients

  

- Prepping the surgery room

  

- Working with surgeons and other members of a surgical team

  

The educational flow for a plastic surgery nurse is:

  

- Diploma, associate or bachelor degree in nursing

  

- Obtain a Basic Life Support (BLS) Certification

  

- Obtain an Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) Certification

  

- Pass the NCLEX-RN

  

- Work for two years as an RN in surgical nursing with half the hours being in plastic surgery

  

- Pass the Certified Plastic Surgical Nurse (CPSN) exam facilitated by the Plastic Surgical Nursing Certification Board (PSNCB) exam. Their site provides details on the following eligibility requirements:

  

- Hold a current, active, unencumbered RN license

  

- Have a minimum of two 2 years of plastic surgery nursing experience as an RN in a general staff, administrative, teaching, or research capacity within 3 years prior to application

  

- Have a minimum of 1,000 practice hours in plastic surgery nursing during 2 of the preceding three 3 years before making an application

  

There is also a Certified Aesthetic Nurse Specialist (CANS) certification exam, also facilitated by the PSNCB. Details on the following eligibility requirements can be located on their site:

  

- Hold a current, active, unencumbered RN license

  

- Work in collaboration or in a practice with a physician that is Board Certified within one of the following core specialties: Plastic/Aesthetic Surgery, Ophthalmology, Dermatology, or Facial Plastic Surgery (ENT)

  

- Have a minimum of 2 years of nursing experience as an RN within one of the listed core specialties above in a general staff, administrative, teaching, or research capacity within 3 years prior to application

  

- Have spent at least 1,000 practice hours within the core specialties during the preceding 2 years before making an application

  

Recertification for either credential is every three years. Because there are two exams with different eligibility requirements, and the tests are given only during certain times of the year, it’s best to check the PSNCB website.

  

8. Transplant Nurse – CCTN

 

Transplant nurses work with patients who donate and receive organs. These nurses are highly skilled at preparing living donors for transplant operations, including any risks involved in the donation. They perform similar services for patients receiving transplant organs from deceased individuals. Transplant nurses assist medical teams during surgery and work in post-operative care. They carefully monitor patients for post-transplant complications like organ rejection.

  

Typical duties of a transplant nurse include:

  

- Clearing patients and donors for surgery

  

- Monitoring patients’ vital signs after surgery

  

- Ordering lab tests to confirm an organ match

  

- Taking medical histories

  

The path to becoming a transplant nurse is:

 

- Get a diploma, associate or bachelor degree in nursing

  

- Obtain a Basic Life Support (BLS) Certification

  

- Obtain an Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) Certification

  

- Pass the NCLEX-RN

  

- Get a few years experience in critical care, intensive care or medical-surgical nursing

  

- Pass the Transplant Nurse certification exam through the American Board for Transplant Certification (ABTC). Their site outlines the following eligibility requirements:

  

- 24 months of general experience as an RN

  

- 12 months of experience while working as a transplant nurse, which can occur concurrently with RN experience

  

Recertification for a Certified Clinical Transplant Nurse (CCTN) is every five years. Check the ABTC website for updated information when you are prepared to embark on this career path.

  

Exam Preparation

 

As you have read, all of these specialties require experience in the field before you are eligible to take the exam. It is essential to understand that practical field experiences do not adequately prepare you to pass any of the certification tests.

  

You have invested substantial time and financial resources for your education, so it is recommended that you take a preparatory course for your selected exam. You should also use the review materials and practice tests provided to you on each site. Most successful candidates spend two to three months consistently studying before attempting their exams. Since there are fees involved, you want to pass your exam the first time. So, create a study routine and follow it faithfully.

  

It can also be helpful for you to join a professional organization associated with the surgical specialty that most interests you. In some cases, the organization can offer you reduced exam fees and special training materials.

  

No matter what surgical specialty you prefer, you will have to obtain a degree in nursing and gain practical experience in the field. If you dedicate yourself to becoming a surgical nurse, you will find more career opportunities open to you.


Still Interested?

  

If any of these nursing specialties has sparked an interest in your nursing career, you can get started today with one of two kits from The Apprentice Doctor. For more information, see here.

  

If you're looking to advance your nursing education, check out eMedCert. We are a premier provider of online certification and recertification for ACLS, PALS, and BLS. If you have questions, please reach out to us at [email protected].