By Crystal Warner, CST, CSA, KCSA, FAST

For students, entering a surgical technology or surgical assisting program can mark the start of a high-stress, high-reward career path. The need to balance studies with outside responsibilities, such as family and jobs, can be overwhelming. At times, such demands are enough to cause students to leave their programs.   

While a number of factors can cause low retention rates (some outside a program’s control), it’s important for instructors to be proactive. Instructors should meet students halfway and ensure they are taking the right steps to provide the tools and support students need to succeed, as well as create a environment students will want to enroll in and return to. If your program is having difficulty with retention rates, consider these ideas.

During the Enrollment Process

  • Informational Sessions: Schedule sessions for the public that will showcase the surgical technology program prior to enrollment. Discuss what a surgical technologist does, job opportunities and curriculum requirements.
  • Pre-admission testing: Additional testing for surgical technology applicants may be helpful in determining a potential student’s ability to be successful with the didactic portion of the program. Two popular tests are the TEAS test and the HESI. You may also consider a manual dexterity test, personality test, and a test for memory recall. Keep in mind, pre-admission testing must be discussed with your school’s administration to ensure compliance with institutional accreditation requirements and applicable law. 
  • Interview: Include your program advisory committee (PAC), instructors or graduates during a panel interview for students. If you are using an interview as part of the admission requirements, make sure you have a fair rubric for scoring the applicant.

The First Day of Class 

  • Student Survival Kit: Give students a little welcome gift on the first day of class or during orientation. Students will feel that they have support and it is a motivator to finish the program. Items can be placed in a small gift bag with a note card attached. Each item in the kit should represent an inspirational concept, as shown in the photo below. 

Front of note card:
Pencil: To write down knowledge you will gain in this program
Eraser: To remind you it is okay to make mistakes. We can correct them.
Sticky Notes: If you “stick” with it, you can accomplish anything. Never give up.
Smarties: To remind you that you are smart and make good decisions.
Life Savers: A reminder that many times a patient will need your help.
Starburst: You are always a star in this class, and everyone shines in their own way.

Back of the note card:
“Life is not about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” – George Bernard Shaw

Throughout the Program

  • Movie Night: Offer surgical-related movie and pizza or popcorn. Have a discussion of what happens in “real life.” Offer door prizes of movie tickets, restaurant gift cards, etc.
  • Student Club: Have the students form a program specific club to promote fundraisers to attend conferences, state assembly meetings and workshops, and also promote the program through community service involvement.
  • Call Case Scenarios: Have students be a part of “call team” and run through various simulations that are similar to what a surgical team would do if on call at the hospital. Students will learn to work with their peers under pressure. (Learn more about this idea here.)
  • Advising: Spend one-on-one time with each student and discuss more than grades and attendance. Be the mentor. Ask about the student’s support system at home and in class. Offer student services in areas that a student may need assistance. Meet with students on a weekly basis for the first four weeks of the program to make sure they are adjusting well to balancing life and classes. The more support a student feels, the more likely he or she will stay enrolled.
  • Open Lab Activities: Schedule open lab time with special topics. For example, Tuesday from 2-4 p.m. converting laparoscopic to open, Wednesday 9-10 a.m. Orthopedic Instrument Review. Students can sign up for sessions they would like to attend in addition to competency practice.

During Clinical

  • Orientation: Show the student around the site prior to the first day of clinical and introduce them to staff. Clinical is the time when we tend to kick our “baby birds” out of the nest. We want the experience to be great, not full of fear. Do all you can to help the student feel comfortable in the new environment.
  • Communication: Be available to the student to discuss cases, preceptors, set-up, etc. Offer weekly meetings with students to go over paperwork and recap what the student did during the week.
  • Resume Review: Offer to look over students’ resumes. Give constructive feedback and offer mock interviews. Help students realize how close they are to the finish line.