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Pre Op Nursing Specialty Resource Guide

Pre-Operative Nursing Specialty Resource Guide

If you’ve ever had surgery in a large hospital system, you’ll likely remember the sheer number of medical professionals who worked with you throughout the process. One nurse prepares you for surgery, others oversee the operation, and finally, there’s a team waiting for you during recovery.

Pre-op nurses usually take charge of the first part of the surgical journey, preparing patients for surgery. And for nurses who want to work adjacent to a surgical specialty without actually being in the operating room, it’s an important job—you get the patient ready, soothe nerves, and make sure everything looks good to go.

If that sounds like a fit for you, keep reading! Pre-op nurses are highly sought after and well-paid, and in this pre-op nursing specialty guide, we’ll discuss everything you need to know about this career path. 

Table of Contents

What Is the Meaning of Pre-Op? 

In healthcare, the pre-op meaning you need to know is “pre-operative,” which refers to the period between being admitted to a hospital for surgery and before that surgery occurs. Therefore, a patient’s pre-op experience typically includes admission, being shown to their bed, changing, completing paperwork, and being prepared for surgery. 

What Does a Pre-Op Nurse Do? 

Pre-op nurses work exclusively with patients during that vital pre-operative period. They may be the first healthcare providers patients interact with, and they’ll typically start intravenous lines (IVs), help patients change if needed, assist patients with paperwork, and walk them through what to expect. 

Pre-op nurses are extraordinarily valuable in hospital settings, as they’ll not only help to put patients at ease, but they’ll also help to make sure patients are, in fact, ready for surgery. 

Where Do Pre-Op Nurses Work?  

Pre-op nurses work almost exclusively in major hospital systems with large surgical teams. Consequently, you typically won’t find them in outpatient surgical centers or smaller healthcare organizations with fewer nurses. Smaller facilities almost always have operative or perioperative nurses who cover multiple stages of the patient’s surgery. So, if you want to work exclusively as a pre-op nurse, you’ll want to turn your job search efforts to large hospitals. 

Common Job Responsibilities of Pre-Op Nurses 

When you’re working as a dedicated nurse in the pre-op nursing specialty, your job responsibilities will typically include the following:

  • Answering patient questions about the surgical process, though the operating physician is responsible for explaining the surgical procedure
  • Ensuring patient test results, including lab work, are available and up-to-date
  • Assessing the patient’s physical and mental well-being before surgery, including their vitals and any symptoms
  • Helping prepare the patient for surgery, including hooking up any IV lines
  • Talking to family members who are with the patient, potentially answering their questions, and putting them at ease
  • Escorting the patient to the operating room
  • Documenting all conditions, symptoms, vitals, and patient concerns in their chart and raising concerns with the operating surgeon

In some cases—including if you’re working as a PRN nurse—pre-op nurses may be asked to take on additional surgical roles, including assisting during surgery or monitoring the patient immediately following surgery. 

While those roles should belong to the operating room (OR), post-anesthesia care unit (PACU), or perioperative nurses, there’s always a chance of some assignments overlapping when working on a contract basis. Consequently, you should be comfortable taking on different surgical tasks. 

How Is Pre-Op Nursing Different from Other Specialties? 

If you are considering pre-op nursing, you’re likely interested in being involved in some aspect of a patient’s surgical journey—but you want to focus exclusively on preparing them for their operation.

Since pre-op nursing has plenty in common with other surgery-related specialties, let’s take a look at each and how they differ. 

Pre-Op Nurse explains how surgery will look
Pre-op nurses are involved with the patient’s surgical journey.

Do Pre-Op and Perioperative Nurses Do Similar Jobs? 

Perioperative nurse definition: Nurses who oversee patients through the entire surgical process, potentially including preparing patients for surgery, assisting the physician during surgery, and supervising them during immediate recovery after their procedure. 

Therefore, pre-op and perioperative nurses have similar jobs. However, pre-op nurses exclusively focus on one part of the process, whereas perioperative nurses typically take patients through the entire process. 

Perioperative nurses are common in small hospitals, surgical centers, and outpatient facilities. On the other hand, pre-op nurses typically work in larger hospitals and their associated on-site surgical facilities. 

Do Pre-Op and PACU Nurses Do Similar Jobs? 

PACU nurse definition: PACU nurses work in the post-anesthesia care unit, caring for patients immediately after surgery. They’re also sometimes called “recovery room nurses.”

PACU nurses are critical care nurses with specialized training. They are responsible for monitoring a patient’s vital signs, levels of consciousness, symptoms, and potential side effects from anesthesia or other drugs administered. 

These two nursing specialties, therefore, bookend surgical care. Pre-op nurses ensure patients are ready and prepared for surgery; PACU nurses care for and monitor patients immediately after their procedures. Both roles involve monitoring the patient’s condition closely. 

Do Pre-Op Nurses and Operative Nurses Do Similar Jobs? 

Operative nurse definition: Operative nurses (also called “operating room nurses” or “surgical nurses”) assist surgeons with the procedures themselves. Different roles may include scrub nurses, registered nurse first assistants (RNFAs), and circulating nurses.  

Some operative nurses take on perioperative roles, caring for patients before, throughout, and after surgery. In many cases, however, they have highly specialized training and dedicated functions to assist during surgery.

Operative nursing is the most different from pre-op nursing out of all the surgical specialties. 

What’s the Average Pre-Op Nurse Salary? 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, registered nurses (RNs) make a mean annual wage of $89,010 or a mean hourly wage of $42.80. While not specific to pre-op nurses, this information is consistent with data from major review sites that share pre-op nursing average pay information.

How to Make More as a Pre-Op Nurse 

Multiple factors will impact your income as a pre-op nurse. One of those factors is the type of facility you work at.

As previously discussed, pre-op nurses work almost exclusively for large hospital systems and their associated surgical centers. Fortunately, medical and surgical hospitals have among the highest pay for RNs, with an annual mean wage of $90,600 (or $43.56 hourly). 

The following factors can also impact your average annual income or overall salary as a pre-op nurse:

  • Location: The state and city where you work can directly impact the compensation you receive. High-cost-of-living areas typically pay more than low-cost-of-living areas. For example, in California, RNs make an annual mean wage of $133,340; in Florida, they make $79,910.
  • Education: Because pre-op nurses have an essential and specialized role, many hospitals require you to have a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN).
  • Experience: Pre-op nurses with extensive experience—including overlapping experience in other surgical specialties—usually earn more than newer RNs in staff positions. 
  • Demand: If you’re in an area with high demand for pre-op nurses, that works in your favor, as you may be able to ask for more. Here’s more great news: Perioperative (and thus pre-op) is currently the sixth-highest in demand out of all nursing specialties. Plus, it has an expected growth rate of 20 percent. 

How to Become a Pre-Op Nurse 

To become a pre-op nurse, the first thing you’ll need to do is choose a nursing program. 

Because pre-op nursing—and other surgical roles—is highly specialized, many hospitals require nurses with BSNs to fill these positions. As a result, if you want to work in any surgical-adjacent specialty, planning on obtaining your BSN can open many more doors in these specialties. 

Your BSN will take an average of four years to complete, though there are bridge programs that take an average of two years if you already have an ADN or are working as a licensed practical nurse (LPN).

Once you graduate from your chosen program, you must take the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN). Once you pass and meet other state requirements, you’ll be a licensed RN and can start applying for jobs. You can also consider certifications for pre-op nursing. 

Pre-Op Nurses exchanging their thougths
Once you graduate from your chosen program, you must take the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses.

Are There Any Pre-Op Nursing Certifications? 

There are no specific nursing certifications required exclusively for pre-op nurses, but there are certifications that can advance your career.

Many hospitals require RNs to have some basic certifications, which may include the following: 

  • Basic Life Support (BLS)
  • Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support (ACLS)
  • Pediatric Advanced Life Support (PALS)

Additionally, you can look into surgical-related certifications, which (depending on your specific work experience) may include the following:

  • Certified Perioperative Nurse (CNOR)
  • Certified Foundational Perioperative Nurse (CFPN)
  • Certified Ambulatory Perianesthesia Nurse (CAPA)

Pros & Cons of Pre-Op Nursing 

Pre-op nursing can be fulfilling, but like all nursing specialties, weighing the pros and cons of this particular career path is crucial. Let’s discuss each. 

Pros of Pre-Op Nursing Careers

A career in pre-op nursing can offer the following benefits:

  • It’s a widely respected job, as pre-op nurses have specialized experience and play a vital role in ensuring a patient’s surgery goes well.
  • You’ll be paid well, especially considering you will likely work in a large hospital setting.
  • You can put patients at ease before their procedure, confident that you’ve done a great job caring for them and ensuring they’re ready.
  • You can be involved in a patient’s surgical journey without participating in surgery or recovery, including wound care or intense symptom management.
  • You can work regular hours as you’re more likely to have stable patients scheduled for surgery during the day. Therefore, you’ll be less likely to work night shifts or holidays than in specialties like emergency room (ER) or intensive care unit (ICU) nursing.
  • The career is currently in demand and growing, meaning plenty of job opportunities will likely be available for the foreseeable future.
  • You gain career maneuverability. If you get tired of pre-op nursing down the line (or need to find a new job for any reason), pre-op nursing gives you an edge for perioperative or other surgical-related nursing specialties. 

Cons of Pre-Op Nursing Careers 

Just as there are pros to pre-op nursing, there are also some cons to consider. These are the potential disadvantages to be aware of:

  • There is plenty of paperwork. All nursing specialties involve reviewing patient files and vitals. Still, it’s common for pre-op nurses to spend a great deal of time asking repetitive questions and potentially needing to flag down labs or test results from different departments.
  • You’ll likely have anxious patients (and families). Patients can be just as nervous about a laparoscopic cyst removal as they are for more “serious” surgeries; anesthesia is a big deal. Patient anxiety can be draining for some personality types.
  • You may have non-compliant patients. Pre-op nurses may well be the ones who realize that patients haven’t been following pre-op instructions. Maybe they snuck in a few snacks or didn’t follow the prescribed medication protocol. Either way, you’ll flag this for the physician and may be involved in delivering not-great news to now-unhappy patients.
  • You may be under significant pressure. Pre-op nurses play an essential role in making sure patients are ready for surgery. Pre-op nurses cannot take this role lightly, and the pressure can take a toll. That said, most nursing roles come with different types of stress. 
  • You have a limited scope of job duties. If you want a great deal of diversity in your day-to-day schedule, pre-op nursing probably isn’t for you. You’ll have limited job responsibilities compared to many other specialties. If you want to increase the types of work you do, consider perioperative nursing instead. 

Final Thoughts About the Pre-Op Nursing Specialty

A career in the pre-op nursing specialty can be an outstanding choice, especially if it’s the right fit for you. It often pays well, and it’s an excellent opportunity to work as part of a team in large, established hospital centers.

While non-compliant or anxious patients can be draining, knowing that you’re helping all of your patients and preparing them for the next stage of their recovery can be extraordinarily fulfilling. 

And, of course, the growing demand and increasing job market for perioperative and pre-op nurses—and the job flexibility and maneuverability—are all significant factors to consider. 

Finally, if you’re still trying to determine which specialty is a perfect fit, check out the different nursing specialties and see what appeals to you.

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