Weston “Hank” Balch, director of Sterile Processing Operations at KentuckyOne Health, asserts in the following article that we are now living in the Age of Sterile Processing.

It’s hard to believe that as far back as 3,000 years ago the Ancient Egyptians had already figured out how to preserve their dead by using antiseptics like pitch and tar, a process we call mummification. From Ancient Egypt to today, we have come a long way in understanding how to use chemicals and medical tools to treat the human body -- most remarkably, now we can actually cut into a living person in order to heal him.

From clamps and crude saws on Civil War battlefields to seemingly sci-fi surgical procedures like non-invasive remote-controlled robots that can extract tumors through your belly-button, we have truly made a huge leap in surgical instrumentation. But what’s possibly more impressive are the changes taking place right now in the Sterile Processing departments -- the teams who are responsible for these innovative surgical instruments. Here are five reasons why you’ll agree that we are living in the Age of Sterile Processing.

1. Governments are committed to lowering the amount of Hospital Acquired Infections (HAIs) The Affordable Care Act of 2010 made clear the United States government’s intention to reduce the rates of Hospital Acquired Infections. The bottom line is, that for the first time, under the ACA, Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements became directly linked to a hospital’s quality of care, and that includes the incidents of patients who acquire infections during their hospital stay. Obviously we all know the importance of hospital staff following proper hygiene, but in addition to that, the single biggest way we can actively prevent HAIs is to ensure proper sterilization of all surgical instrumentation. Though it’s true that there are other ways to acquire infections during a hospital stay, it’s difficult and time-consuming to zero in on the particular type of microorganism and how it is being transmitted. In contrast, preparing completely sterile trays of instruments for our surgeons will go a long way in preventing the spread of HAIs. Recently the US government has been pouring billions of dollars into infection control -- as well as our counterparts overseas -- and therefore, Sterile Processing departments are sure to be at the heart of this effort.

autoclave sterilizer being loaded with packed medical equipment

2. The media are reporting on the dangerous mistakes of Sterile Processing departments It’s obvious to most of us that if price were no object, we would find the best doctor in the country to treat our beloved parent, spouse, child, etc. But what about the best Sterile Processing department? Isn’t the top surgeon in his or her field functioning as part of a whole support team of SP staff who ensure the safety of all the equipment to be used in surgery? In other words, what is a top surgeon without a top SP department? Recently 12,000 pediatric patients at Seattle Children’s Hospital were advised to be tested for Hepatitis B and C, and HIV, after the hospital discovered it was reprocessing surgical equipment incorrectly. There are, unfortunately, too many other individual cases from all over the United States, that are reaching the media and highlighting the real problem of the challenges SP departments face in ensuring that every single medical tray that leaves the department is sterile and ready for the OR.


3. The more complex the surgery, the more complex the instruments and the harder they are to sterilize effectively. It used to be that the job of the Sterile Processing technician was less complex; everything, more or less, was made of glass or stainless steel and was more easily sterilized. Today, we have a sophisticated generation of surgical instruments, including items like titanium-tipped scissors, retractors that come with their own xenon light sources, and ultrasonic cutting devices. The advances in instrumentation are remarkable, with the medical device companies who manufacture these implements promising decreased patient recovery time and cost-savings to hospitals. Joe Leweling, VP of Standards and Development at the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation (AAMI), elaborates, “Cleaning was once a basic factory job. Now it’s very complex. It takes a lot of steps. It’s more like a laboratory process.” We can only expect the trend of highly specialized, sophisticated surgical tools to continue, and at the same time, our SP departments must rise to the challenge of sterilizing them properly.

4. Sterile Processing leaders are recognizing this historic era in the industry. The years 1787-88 marked a time of expectation and excitement as the first states began to ratify the freshly drafted U.S. Constitution. Today, similarly, there is a feeling of anticipation in the air that changes are coming to the world of sterile processing. We are standing at a crossroads, and our leaders realize it. Michael Matthews, Central Sterile Manager at Conway Regional Health System, explains, "Hospitals can no longer act as though CS technicians do not have a dramatic effect on patient care and safety simply because they are not physically present in the surgical suite with the patient."  And the times they are a changin’ for SP technicians who are now required to earn certification in New York, New Jersey, and now Connecticut. There is a real momentum for positive changes to our industry that will help propel us forward to meet the demands of the changing medical scene.

5. SP technicians are shining in their professionalism, expertise, and leadership. It used to be that standard job descriptions for an SP technician may have appeared something like this: high school diploma required or equivalent, no prior experience. But this is changing. As I mentioned above, three states already require certification and more are sure to follow. And now the field is attracting a new population of bright college graduates and multi-certified specialists. With our “triple crown certification” at KentuckyOne Health system, we are making serious gains in equipping our SP team with knowledge of quality and safety practices, as well as raising the professional bar for the whole department. SP technicians and department managers are getting published in leading industry magazines, advancing our causes in the medical world. And we are able to openly discuss what’s happening in our SP departments in meetings of the International Association of Healthcare Service Materiel Management (IAHCSMM), as well as social media platforms like LinkedIn’s Sterile Processing Department Professionals. These outlets allow for networking and the exchange of relevant and valuable ideas.

And the more we work together creatively across the industry, the more we will be able to tackle the challenges unique to this exciting era, the Age of Sterile Processing.

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