What Does Cath Lab Nursing Mean in Medical Terms?

Every year, close to 700,000 people die of heart disease in the US. In fact, heart disease is considered the single leading cause of death in this country, and a robust medical architecture has emerged specifically for treating this incredibly common diagnosis.

For those with a family history of heart disease or otherwise at risk, there are typically a few options for prevention and treatment. Naturally, diet and exercise factor heavily into the equation, and sometimes preventing the worst symptoms can come down to a few lifestyle adjustments.

With that said, there are also several treatment options once a patient is diagnosed with heart disease. Many of these treatments—and sometimes also the initial diagnosis of heart disease—are completed using a process called cardiac catheterization.  More than a million cardiac catheterizations are performed every year in the US.

As you may guess, cath lab nursing deals specifically with the procedure of cardiac catheterization. However, there’s a lot more to this complex and necessary role, some of which we’ll cover in this article today.

Let’s get started!

What Is a Catheter?

“Catheter” refers to a small tube that can be fed into a patient’s body for the purpose of moving fluids or opening a pathway. Commonly, people refer to catheters when discussing urinary catheters, which are used to automatically drain urine from patients’ bladders following surgery.

However, in this case, “catheter” refers to a coronary catheter. Coronary catheters are passed through a blood vessel and into the patient’s heart. This process is typically completed in a hospital’s cath lab. 

See also: What Types of Healthcare Facilities Are There?

There are several reasons this procedure is undertaken, many of which relate to the diagnosis and treatment of heart disease.

For instance, a catheter might be inserted to perform a stent—a balloon that is inflated to expand a passageway in the patient's body that has narrowed as a result of heart disease. In other cases, a catheter might be used in the process of diagnosis—taking a sample of cardiac tissue or feeding an observational device into the patient’s heart. 

There are many reasons for a patient to need a cardiac catheter. And for every catheter installed, at least one cath lab nurse will be involved.

What Role Does a Cath Lab Nurse Play in the Procedure?

As is true for all nursing specialties, your expectations, responsibilities, and duties as a cath lab nurse depend heavily on the setup and standard procedures of the facility where you work. 

Typically, you’ll be fulfilling one of a few central nursing roles in the lab. These roles include scrub, monitor, and circulator nurse; as a cath lab nurse, you may rotate between these roles based on your shift or keep the same role long term. At times, these roles can be very flexible, with nurses and techs sharing responsibilities and swapping duties.

As one nurse on a Reddit thread mentioned,

“Our lab also has techs and nurses doing the same roles and we all rotate between scrub, monitor, and circulator. It helps a lot since in this case you get to learn all the roles and see the bigger picture. How the lab has roles set up differs from place to place.”

Looking at each of these roles can help you understand the overall role that cath lab nurses play in the cath lab and all associated procedures.

See also: What Is the Specific Role of an Operating Room (OR) Nurse?


Scrub Nurse

As a scrub nurse in the cath lab, you’ll be handling a few critical responsibilities. Primarily, you’ll be providing much-needed support for the cardiologists who are handling the actual implementation of the catheter.


As with scrub nurses in the OR setting, cath lab scrub nurses help hand off equipment to the cardiologist and share monitoring responsibilities with the monitoring nurse. Generally, their duties will be the most “hands-on” when it comes to patient care, actively working with the cardiologist to assist with the catheterization procedure.

Monitor Nurse

While the scrub nurse is responsible for working directly with the cardiologist and is the most immersed in the process of patient care, the monitor nurse holds an equally important role in the process. As the name suggests, monitor nurses monitor the patient’s status, providing important updates and changes throughout the process.


This role is especially important in the cath lab, as codes are common whenever work is being done on a patient’s heart. Without a devoted monitoring role, the entire team is in the dark and may not be able to respond quickly enough when a problem arises.

Circulator Nurse

Often, healthcare procedures—and particularly surgeries and other invasive procedures—seem to occur in a vacuum. The patient enters the room (whether it is an operating room or a cath lab), the operation is performed, and the patient leaves. 


However, things are not usually this cut-and-dry. Family, loved ones, caretakers, and caregivers all play an important role in the healthcare process and need to be included and updated throughout. While the cardiac catheterization operation can take as little as thirty minutes, complications and recovery can add some uncertainty to that timeframe. 


As a circulator nurse, you will act as the patient’s advocate while updating any caregivers about the patient’s status. All of this will help provide comprehensive and effective care for the patient.

Taking an Active Role in the Cath Lab

As you can see, many aspects of cath lab nursing overlap with OR nursing. 

In both cases, you’ll be working in a fast-paced environment where critical thinking is as important as having the right tools for the job. In both roles, you work closely with a tight-knit team of nurses and physicians, and you often experience the immense gratification of helping a patient with a potentially life-threatening—or life-altering—operation. 

However, one of the main draws of working as a cath lab nurse is the ability to be more hands-on with patient care than in the OR. As one cath lab nurse shared on Reddit,

“It's a lot more critical thinking and more autonomy. OR you basically either scrub, fetch supplies, setup equipment, or put foley's in… CVOR (Cardiovascular OR) is a job, CCL (Cardiac Cath Lab) is a way of life.”

The aforementioned skill overlap, combined with the (slightly) less diverse nature of the work being performed, allows cath lab nurses to truly hone their niche skillset, taking on more responsibility in the lab.


Building a Career in the Cath Lab

If this sort of work sounds like something you’d like to explore further, we encourage you to read our Cath Lab RN Ultimate Guide. In it, we cover all the important aspects of this role and why it might be a great option for your future nursing career!

Beyond that, check out our per diem nursing blog for content spanning all the prominent nursing specialties. Thanks for reading!

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