What Makes a Good Surgical Nurse?

Surgical nursing is hard. Every second you spend in the operating room (OR) matters. Every decision that is made between the first incision and the last suture can have serious consequences for the patient you’re working on. 

So whether you’re assisting a brain surgeon or handling instruments during a routine wrist surgery, your role in the surgical process is vital, and the smallest mistake or distraction can have a lasting effect on the patient. 

Given all this, surgical nursing is not for everyone. Being a surgical nurse requires certain skills, personality traits, and a real dedication to the work you’ll be performing. In this guide, we’ll be looking at some of those specific traits and skills that make for a great surgical nurse.

Let’s get started!

Essential Personality Traits for Surgical Nursing

To start, let’s take a look at some of the inherent personality traits that can help you become an exceptional surgical nurse. 

While many of these traits can be developed, they are absolutely necessary for you to succeed as an OR nurse, and you should be able to see each of these in your personality before beginning work in this field.


Before caring, before empathy, before any of the other traits and skills that are typically associated with being a great nurse, you must be organized.

Everything in the OR must run like a well-oiled machine, and no amount of training can truly prepare you for it. Things move quickly, even during multi-hour surgeries, and tiny decisions and judgment calls are often made on a second’s notice. 

As an OR nurse, one of your greatest responsibilities is to maintain an atmosphere of order and clarity in the operating room and wherever you go.

If you’re a circulating nurse, this means getting all the details of the operation correct so you can report back to your coworkers and the patient’s family. If you're a scrub nurse, this can mean keeping the room sterile and organized and ensuring the surgeon has the right tools for the job. 

Regardless of your specific role in the room, you are a major support for everyone involved in the surgery, and keeping everything organized and clear can help your patient just as much as the surgeon’s skill.


While this personality trait is needed for any nursing field (with research now focusing on how to teach empathy in the classroom), the term “empathy” doesn’t quite capture the full extent of what you must possess to be a great surgical nurse.

Surgical nurses who spend years working long shifts in the inherent stress of the OR must have an ironclad ability to recognize the patient’s humanity. Surgeons and nurses alike can struggle to maintain this empathy, especially when they work in a larger hospital apparatus that can feel overbearing and inhumane. 

As an OR nurse, there is a very good chance that you will not interact with patients while they are conscious. Rather, you will be working on an unconscious body, making the best decisions with the information that you have. As a result, OR nurses are especially vulnerable to losing empathy over time. However, when a patient is unconscious and unable to speak up, maintaining a baseline of empathy is even more important.

This quality is especially important for circulating nurses. One of the main roles of a circulating nurse is to serve as the patient's advocate in their absence. To do this job, you must possess real and honest empathy for the patient at all times.

You can learn more about this role and others in our Ultimate Guide to OR Nursing.

Operating Room Nursing Skills

In addition to the traits listed above, all surgical nurses should be equipped with a strong set of skills. Unlike the above traits, though, these skills can be readily learned and perfected. So if you’re not an expert at any of these, there are plenty of resources out there to get you across the finish line.

Life Support

All surgical nurses must be well-versed in basic and advanced life support. To even become a surgical nurse, you must pass both Basic Life Support (BLS) and Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support (ACLS) training administered by the American Heart Association. In these classes, you’ll learn how to administer chest compressions, use an automated external defibrillator (AED), and other essential life support skills.

Learn more about the courses and certifications needed to become a surgical nurse.


As a surgical nurse, you will (almost) never be the highest-ranked individual in the OR. Ultimately, the lead surgeon in the room will be calling the shots, though the specific dynamics of an OR will differ based on the individual staff and the policies of the facility.

Nevertheless, any good surgical nurse must be prepared to step into a dicey situation and restore order and clarity. Strong leadership skills—and the confidence associated with those skills—are indispensable.


As an RN, your training and licensure will prepare you with certain fundamental leadership and management skills. However, continuing to develop these skills over time can help you become a rock in the operating room. 


Clear and decisive communication is never more important than in the OR. After all, any small misunderstandings or crossed lines can mean serious consequences for the patient.

Nurses, in particular, must be able to keep everyone on the same page, coordinating the patient’s care among various staff members, many of whom are working with incomplete information. As a scrub nurse, you’ll need to efficiently communicate with surgeons, anesthesiologists, and other nurses regularly.

As a circulating nurse, you’ll be dealing with the added dynamic of communicating with the patient’s family and loved ones, providing clear and helpful updates throughout the surgical process.

Surgical Nursing: a Career in the OR

As an aspiring nurse, you can steer your career in many different directions. From a flexible workload in home health and hospice to the rigorous trenches of the OR, you can work towards the job that suits your preferences and needs.

However, the OR requires the sort of nurse who seeks an exciting and fast-paced environment, who can speak up on the patient’s behalf when that patient can’t, and who is naturally organized and clear-headed, regardless of the situation. If these attributes describe you, the OR may be the best step forward for your career.

At Nursa, we help nurses make informed decisions throughout every stage of their careers by providing helpful insights and information into all things nursing. Check out our per diem nursing blog for more content.

Pick Up a Shift Today

Connect to per diem shift opportunities in your area. High paying CNA, LPN and RN shifts are now available.

Pick Up Shift

Post Your Shift Today

Facilities who use Nursa fill 3 times as many open per diem shifts, on average, compared to trying to fill the shifts themselves.

Post a Shift
Nursa is no 1 mobile app for clinicians

Download the app now