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My job explained: Operating Department Practitioner

My job explained: Operating Department PractitionerMark Dillon provides patient care before, during and after surgery. Find out what the job involves and how to get into it.

What are the basics of your job?

I'm trained to work in theatres in three separate roles: the anaesthetic role, the scrub and circulating role, and the post-op analgesia recovery role. I focus mainly on the anaesthetic role, which involves preparing the anaesthetic room and anaesthetic equipment, assisting the anaesthetist with the induction and maintenance of anaesthesia, setting-up fluids and blood for infusion and positioning patients for the surgical procedure.

I also have to ensure that the patient is safe and comfortable. By that I mean making sure they've got enough pain relief. Obviously the patient can't talk to us, so we're trained to look at the monitors to see - the vital signs of the patient will tell us what's going on. So I've got a lot of numbers that I can go through in my head to work out when they're in pain or losing blood.

The scrub and circulating role involves setting-up sterile instrument trolleys, assisting with the preparation of the operation site, carrying out safety counts to ensure that no equipment is left inside the patient and acting as a link between the surgical team and other parts of the operating theatre and hospital.

The post-anaesthetic recovery role happens after the operation, when the patient is in the recovery area. They're recovering from the anaesthetic, and my job is to monitor the patient's vital signs, i.e. pulse, blood pressure and respiration, maintain the patient's airway until they’re awake, assess the patient's need for pain relief and administer drugs. I constantly monitor the patient and then discharge them to the ward, or to intensive care if needed.

How did you get into it?

I started in the domestic services team. From there I went into the Sterile Services Department, cleaning the instruments in theatre, and I was working as a driver delivering them as well. So I got to be familiar with the theatre and the instruments.

I got the opportunity to view an operation - I said 'I want to see the biggest operation you've got!' and thought, 'this is where I want to be.' I was encouraged to apply, and I had a massive advantage because I had so much experience - I already knew what all the instruments were.

What training did you need?

I did an NVQ, which was largely work-based, but the training has changed. It's now a two-year DipHE or a three-year degree course.

What other skills do you need?

Enthusiasm, and willingness to learn. You also need common sense - it's a very practical, hands-on job – and interpersonal and communication skills since you're talking to lots of different people through the day.

You have to be well-prepared and able to deal with the unexpected as well. You might have an hour in the morning to get prepared, but you won't have time to catch up later in the day, so you have to prepare everything!

What career progression is available?

There's lots of training opportunities available. There's always new technology and new techniques coming through, so there's plenty to learn.

There's also the opportunity to teach, which is very satisfying. You get the chance to mould the next people coming up, make them as good as they can be. I say to my students, I see you on day one, and I want to see you in three years when you're about to qualify and see how far you've come.

What's the best bit of your job?

Definitely when you've helped a patient, and they send a letter in - not just to you, but to everyone in the theatre - thanking you and letting you know that they're getting on well. I always say that I'm just doing my job, but for them, we've helped them through their cancer or whatever and now they're doing well. That's very satisfying.

What are the biggest challenges?

Dealing with emergency operating lists. You don't know what's going to happen - there could be a big pile-up on the A39 that you've got to deal with. You have to be prepared for whatever comes up, and be able to think on your feet.

There's also NHS funding - you can't always get hold of the best equipment or the latest technology. It won't change the quality of the care you give, but it makes life harder for you.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to follow in your footsteps?

Look at universities to find a course - it's not a very well-known course, so you might have to hunt about for it. Then it's worth getting some work experience. You don't want to get on the course and then discover you can't stand the sight of blood. We do work experience at the hospital - some people come in and say 'actually, this isn't for me', and other people say 'This is great, I had no idea about it.'

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