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Working in an operating theatre

Get beneath the skin of what happens during surgical operations.

What is an operating theatre?

An operating theatre is where certain invasive surgical procedures – which means operations that involve cutting into and working inside a patient’s body - take place. This might involve either minimally invasive procedures like keyhole surgery – where cameras and a laparoscope are inserted through small incisions – or open surgery where surgeons make larger cuts to reach the internal organs. Complicated operations can last many hours.

Not all hospitals have operating theatres, and some larger hospitals might have more than one in what are called operating suites. Most operating theatres specialise in a certain type of surgery, such as heart or neurosurgery. These theatres will contain lots of specialist equipment, but every operating theatre has bright lights, an operating table for the patient to lie on, an Electrocardiograph Machine to monitor a patient’s heart-rate, and surgical suction machines to remove blood from around the organs the surgeons are treating.

It is also essential that operating theatres are completely sterile, which is why anyone who enters one must wear scrubs and a mask and wash thoroughly, to avoid spreading infection.

Who works in an operating theatre?

Operations normally take place in four stages, which all require specialist staff:

  • Pre-operative stage is when patients are informed about and prepared for the operation about to take place, by restricting their diet for example
  • Anaesthetic stage is when the patient is either ‘put to sleep’ under general anaesthetic or has part of their body numbed under local anaesthetic
  • Surgical stage is when the operation is performed in the operating theatre
  • Recovery stage is when the patient is transferred to a ward for further care and treatment

Some of the staff who work in operating theatres include:

  • Surgeons who carry out the operation
  • Anaesthetists who give anaesthetics to control pain both before and during the operation
  • Theatre nurses who care for patients throughout all four stages of the operation
  • Operating department practitioners who make sure everything in the operating theatre is sterile and functioning properly, and may assist surgeons in the operation
  • Theatre support workers who transport patients between the wards and the operating theatre
  • Cardiographers to monitor the ECG machine
  • Radiographers to take X-rays if they are needed

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