Theatre nurses work within hospital operating theatres and anaesthetic/recovery units, helping to care for patients before, during, and after surgery. As part of a wider perioperative team, they work alongside surgeons, anesthetists, operating department practitioners (ODPs) and theatre support staff. Depending on the procedure, they may also care for patients on the ward or in clinics, for example, when helping to fit a cardiac catheterisation unit.
Four main stages of care
‘Theatre nurses are highly skilled and work with patients of all ages during the four stages of perioperative care: pre-assessment, anesthetics, surgery and recovery,’ says Cathy Taylor RCN Careers Advisor. ‘While most work on rotation, it’s possible to specialise in a specific area, such as anaesthetics, scrub or post-anaesthetic care.’
The preoperative assessment is an opportunity to ensure the patient is fully informed about the risks and benefits of surgery, and that they are in optimal health for the procedure.
Prior to surgery, theatre nurses act as an assistant to the anaesthetist, helping to prepare a range of equipment and drugs, including anaesthetic machines and intravenous equipment.
During the surgical phase, theatre nurses will ‘scrub in’ and participate in procedures as part of the operating team. Working under sterile conditions, they prepare and assemble all necessary surgical equipment and will hand instruments, needles, swabs and other materials to the surgeon as requested, often anticipating their requirements. Theatre nurse are also responsible for ensuring that all surgical equipment and material is accounted for throughout the procedure, and especially after the operation.
In the recovery phase, theatre nurses receive, assess and monitor patients on their arrival to the post anaesthetic care unit, providing treatment as necessary before they are admitted back to the ward.
Good interpersonal skills and the ability to work effectively within a multidisciplinary team is essential.
‘This role is ideal for those who like to work in a very close team environment, in a very focused way, with the ability to pay close attention to detail. You have to be very thorough in your work and be able to think quickly in a crisis, whilst anticipating the needs of other team members,’ says Cathy.
Excellent communication skills and the ability to build trust with patients is important, particularly during the pre-operative phase. Patients who ask questions and are well informed are less likely to pull-out of procedures at the last minute.
Strong clinical skills are required to help prepare specialist equipment and drugs, and work within a highly technical area. Given the complex and lengthy nature of many procedures, theatre nurses must be able to concentrate, pay great attention to detail, and be able to stand for long periods of time.
You will need to be qualified and registered as a nurse before working as a theatre nurse. If you already have a nursing degree, you can apply for a post in a theatre directly. Many nurses who go into theatres do not have any previous training except what they have done in their pre-registration courses. It can help your application to read up on perioperative care, attend study days and undertake relevant modules.
Once you are accepted as a theatre nurse, you would normally complete an induction and undertake specialist training / education and carry out continuing professional development relevant to the role. Nurses who are already in employment can take a course in perioperative care at Diploma of Higher Education (DipHE), degree and Masters-level on a part-time basis. You may be able to obtain funding through your employer.
As all of the courses have a practice and a theory component to the assessment, you need to be working within a perioperative environment before enrolling. To find a suitable course, visit the Association for Perioperative Practice. ODP courses can be found on the NHS coursefinder.
Advancing your career
Experienced theatre nurses can go on to become a senior theatre nurse or work in management, education, research and advanced practice. With further training, you could work as a surgical care practitioner. Courses generally take two years to complete and allow you to undertake certain surgical procedures, under the supervision of a consultant surgeon.
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