What Does It Take To Be A Great Technician?

It’s arguably easy for a vet to know if they do a good job or not.

What does it take to be a great technician?

It’s arguably easy for a vet to know if they do a good job or not. Does the sick cat live or not? Does the paralyzed dog walk or not? Does the broken bone heal or not?

But how do technicians know if they do a good job? Any technician questioning his or her abilities may have wondered: “Am I a good technician?” or “What does my doctor think of me?” and beyond, “How do I go from good to great?”

Ross Palmer, a board-certified veterinary surgeon at Colorado State University, tried to answer these tough questions in a courageous and interesting study [“Inside the Surgeon’s Mind: What Makes a Great OR Technician?” American College of Veterinary Surgeons 2007 Symposium, Chicago, Ill.].

Dr. Palmer analyzed questionnaires filled in by 10 surgeons, who answered questions such as:

  • Have you ever worked with a surgery nurse who you felt was outstanding or excellent?
    Average? Below average?
  • What personal qualities, actions, habits, skills/abilities, knowledge, etc., made these persons outstanding?
  • Which attributes lacked in average technicians that prevented them from being outstanding or excellent?

These are certainly difficult questions. Our hope is that facing the answers with an open and curious mind will help you become an even better technician. Results will show you what to strive for. The information is also relevant to technicians, supervisors and doctors interested in mentoring a technician to become outstanding. Granted, Dr. Palmer was specifically looking for information about operating room and surgery technicians, but it really applies to all technicians, which makes the results of this survey all the more interesting.


Outstanding technicians love what they do and take pride in their work. They have a willingness to help beyond their job description. They’re interested in patients, pet owners and details of procedures. They are attentive to details and have a great work ethic.

Average technicians have a poor attitude, poor work satisfaction and “seem disinterested at times.”

Below average technicians have a poor attitude to the point of causing morale issues in their co-workers.

The surgeons suggested that technicians interested in getting better take more initiatives, work beyond their job description, take pride in their work and develop a desire to learn and excel.

Skills and abilities

Excellent technicians used their experience of each vet to anticipate their needs. They are efficient, adaptable and organized. They are team players who communicate well. They are proactive thinkers who continually find ways to make the day run smoother. “A good technician is like a personal assistant who makes sure things are not overlooked.”

Average technicians tended to be more reactive than proactive. Suggestions to improve include developing the ability to anticipate needs, focus, follow through, communicate and handle the pressure.


Outstanding technicians show initiative and are reliable. They are aware of operating room etiquette.

Average technicians “settle for mediocrity” (sic). They can be caught day dreaming, watching the clock and gossiping.

Below average technicians regularly call in sick, are late to work or lie (sic). One had a drinking problem, which is obviously a problem when patient lives are at stake.

Besides correcting obvious faults, the surgeons suggested taking more initiatives and showing more attention to details.


Excellent technicians have extensive knowledge about “surgical procedures, anesthesia, physiology, pharmacology, surgical principles, aseptic technique and instrument identification.” One surgeon appreciates a technician who “can efficiently locate an instrument.” Another one commented that these skills come with experience, if the right attitude is present.

The solution to develop the required knowledge seems therefore obvious: having the right aptitude, maintaining the right attitude and being able to retain the information.


Outstanding technicians have a sense of humor and keep the environment fun. They are “cheerful, friendly, courteous, polite, enthusiastic and trustworthy.” They are hard-working and have a servant’s heart.

Average technicians “have poor work ethics,” “have their own agenda” and are whiners (sic).

Below-average technicians are described as lazy, lacking integrity and reliability.

To adjust their attitude, it was suggested that they acquire the desire to exceed expectations, the ambition to do more than assisting and the initiative to go beyond minimum requirements.

If you think about it, some of the skills described, or the lack thereof, don’t only apply to surgery technicians. They don’t even only apply to technicians in general. In truth, some apply to anybody in any profession!

Even though some comments may seem harsh, the good news is that 100 percent of responding surgeons acknowledged that they have worked with excellent technicians. Further, 90 percent of surgeons had worked with an average technician. And 50 percent reported working with a below-average technician.

The same surgeons recognize that working in the OR can be stressful and challenging.  They acknowledge that they need “a lot of help to juggle their various demands.”

Interestingly, average technicians seemed to view their position as a job, whereas excellent technicians consider theirs as “a mission, a calling or a career.”

So how do you progress from good to great? Dr. Palmer’s study actually suggests that average and excellent nurses sometimes share some of the same abilities. What seems to make a difference is the ability of average technicians to apply their knowledge and exceed expectations. The consensus appears to be that jumping from average to outstanding performance appears to be a very realistic goal.”

Sadly, below-average technicians seem to lack the aptitude or attitude to work in a surgical team setting. They “occasionally lacked personal character to succeed in a position requiring considerable personal responsibility.”

Dr. Palmer’s hope was to “provide one piece of the puzzle of how to create a healthier and more satisfying work environment.” To complete our own puzzle, we asked Lisa Martini-Johnson, DVM, what she thought would be the top 10 features of the ideal technician. As the assistant director of the Lehigh Carbon and Northampton Community College Veterinary Technician Program in Allentown and Bethlehem, Pa., she suggested this list of attributes:

  1. Dedicated/devoted
  2. Responsible/dependable
  3. Competent
  4. Ethical
  5. Compassionate
  6. Lifetime of commitment
  7. Ability to multitask and prioritize
  8. Ability to anticipate needs
  9. Team player
  10. Excellent communication skills

Dr. Martini-Johnson believes that technicians “should strive to improve the standards of their profession by attending professional conferences.” They also should be “receptive to new ideas and suggestions at their work place.”

Based on these results, what skills can you implement today to progress from good to great?


Phil Zeltzman is a board-certified surgeon with a mobile practice in Allentown, Pa. His website is www.DrPhilZeltzman.com.

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