Perioperative career pathways

Discover the various roles within perioperative nursing that may interest you. If you are a nursing student or a beginning practitioner start by exploring the nursing roles. If you are a more experienced practitioner looking to expand your career, the advanced nursing roles may interest you. A brief summary of education options and a list of perioperative nursing associations are also included below.

For information about non-nursing roles in perioperative practice visit our Subsidiary roles page.

Why choose perioperative nursing?

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Perioperative nursing offers a number of interesting and stimulating career opportunities. Perioperative nurses care for surgical patients having interventional procedures in operating suites and day surgery units. They work in a large team of people with specialised knowledge and skillsets who, together, provide safe and high quality of care to surgical patients from admission right through to discharge in the operating suite or day surgery unit. It can be incredibly rewarding to be a part of such a team where no two days are the same and there is an endless opportunity for learning and professional development.

The common perception that perioperative nursing is a purely technical role, with little or no patient contact, is a myth. Perioperative nurses deliver care to patients both directly and indirectly, and all activities performed by the nurse are done so on behalf of the patient. Nurses interact directly with fully conscious patients and their families and carers, and when patients are under anaesthetic the nurse ensures that patient care goals are met. As with many acute care roles, the level of patient contact is determined by the individual nurse and their approach to patient care.

Perioperative nurses need knowledge and understanding of evidence-based practice and ACORN's Standards for Perioperative Nursing in Australia. They should also map their career advancement against the ACORN Professional Standards.

To learn more about perioperative nursing visit our Perioperative nursing page. 

Nursing roles

There are a number of contemporary roles, including:

  • Anaesthetic nurse
  • Circulating nurse (formerly known as scout nurse)
  • Instrument nurse (formerly known as scrub nurse)
  • Post Anaesthesia Care Unit (PACU) nurse  
  • Pre-admission and day surgery nurses (also known as pre-operative patient assessment and education nurses).

Both registered nurses and enrolled nurses work in perioperative settings. For enrolled nurses to fully participate in any role it is recommended they have completed a Diploma of Nursing that includes medications administration up to the level of intravenous medications. See Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia (NMBA) fact sheet Enrolled nurses and medicine administration.

Advice for nursing students and graduate nurses

If you are a student or newly graduated nurse, there are a number of things you can do to prepare yourself for the new knowledge and skills needed to be successful in gaining access to the perioperative nursing speciality. It is a great advantage if you obtain a placement in the operating suite while completing undergraduate studies and during your graduate year. When choosing where to spend your graduate year, look for health service organisations that offer the operating suite as a placement option.

It is also beneficial to read textbooks and use other resources which will provide a great foundation on which to build your knowledge and capabilities. The textbook Perioperative Nursing: An Introduction (2016, 2nd edition) is a good reference with which to begin. You can also research 'perioperative nursing', 'operating room technique' and 'care of the surgical patient' on the internet.

ACORN also offers resources such as the Surgical hand antisepsis, gowning and gloving DVD.

For more information about these roles visit our Nursing roles page.

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Advanced nursing roles

Perioperative nursing may also lead to advanced practice options that include:

  • Nurse educator
  • Nurse Practitioner (Perioperative) roles
  • Nurse researcher
  • management roles (e.g. Nurse Unit Manager (NUM) and Perioperative Services Manager)
  • Perioperative Nurse Surgeon's Assistant (PNSA).

Advice for experienced practitioners

Most advanced nursing roles require a relevant further qualification on top of a Bachelor of Nursing. Nurse Practitioner, nurse researcher and PNSA roles require a master’s degree relevant to the context of the advanced nursing practice, while the Nurse educator role requires a qualification in education. Management roles require leadership skills and management experience. Although they do not necessarily require higher qualifications, a postgraduate qualification with a health administration focus is an advantage. Some advanced nursing roles also require supplementary education, endorsement or a mentor or supervisor.

For more information about these roles visit our Advanced nursing roles page.

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Education in perioperative nursing

Education in perioperative nursing can be found in both informal and formal settings.

  • Undergraduate degrees can offer education as either theory and clinical placement, theory only, or clinical placement opportunities during acute placements.
  • Transition to practice programs can offer orientation to perioperative nursing during an operating suite rotation.
  • Diplomas of nursing may offer a perioperative elective HLTEN612B Practise in the perioperative nursing environment in the advanced diploma units of study. (Note: for diploma courses you need to ensure you study with a registered training organisation (RTO). For more information see www.training.gov.au.)
  • Introduction to perioperative nursing programs may be delivered by state and territory perioperative nursing associations (see links below).
  • The Australian College of Nursing (ACN) offers a Graduate Certificate in Perioperative Nursing.
  • Certain universities offer postgraduate perioperative nursing master's degrees with optional exit points at graduate certificate and graduate diploma. (Note: to enrol in a postgraduate degree you need to be working in a perioperative setting.)

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National and state or territory associations

Perioperative nurses also benefit from joining ACORN via their local state or territory perioperative nursing association. (You automatically become a member of ACORN when you join your local association.) ACORN and the local associations provide excellent ongoing professional development to perioperative nurses through national and state conferences, study days, resources, education grants, a national quarterly journal (Journal of Perioperative Nursing) and association newsletters. Visit your local association website to see what educational opportunities are available:

ACORN Queensland

NSW Operating Theatre Association (OTA)

Victorian Perioperative Nurse Group (VPNG)

ACORN Tasmania

South Australian Perioperative Nurses Association (SAPNA)

ACORN Western Australia

Northern Territory Perioperative Nurses Association (NTPNA)

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