Sterile Processing Professionals: The Unsung Infection Prevention Heroes

As sterile processing technicians, we don’t always see ourselves as infection control practitioners – but that’s exactly what we are. Although we do our jobs in an assembly line-type environment rather than in a hands-on patient involvement, we are vital to preventing the spread of infection in our hospitals. We do that in several different ways: decontaminating patient-care equipment, cleaning and sterilizing surgical instruments, and dispensing sterile supplies.

Our actions can have a huge impact on our patients. When we do our jobs well, most often it goes unnoticed and that’s the way we want to keep it; however, that doesn’t mean we want our departments to go unnoticed in the hospital. Sterile processing is responsible for all sterilization that takes place in the hospital, regardless of whether it is performed in the sterile processing department (SPD) or elsewhere in the facility.

Let’s review the things that sterile processing technicians can do to help prevent the spread of infection in their hospitals:

• Know and follow the standards.

Become familiar with and follow best-practice standards published by the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation (AAMI). These standards should be the basis for departmental policies and procedures and will answer most questions that begin with “What should I do if...?” Following best-practice standards won’t eliminate mistakes, but it will allow technicians to recognize mistakes and correct the situation so it will not happen again. The only way we can truly be the “sterilization experts” in our hospitals is to know the standards, and that comes from studying them; reading them (and re-reading them) so they become second nature to us. Knowing the standards will also better position SPD technicians to become a resource to the other departments within the hospital, such as the GI lab, that perform sterilization or high level disinfection.

• Get educated and certified.

One of the most difficult tasks in an SPD is staying current with updated practice standards. Becoming certified provides educational basics. Maintaining certification with required continuing education ensures that technicians are informed regarding the most up-to-date information. Education is available in magazines and trade publications, books, on the Web, and at educational seminars around the country. Sterile processing is not a static field – it is constantly changing. To ensure that we provide patients with appropriately processed items, technicians must stay current on standards and practices pertaining to decontamination and sterilization.

• Take responsibility.

If you see a situation is not being addressed according to best practice, either fix it or report it. Perhaps you notice that patient care equipment is not being appropriately cleaned between patient uses or you see sterile supplies that are not stored properly – or, perhaps, you realize that a sterilizer load was not sterilized at the correct parameters. What do you do? Although you may not be in the position to correct the situation yourself, take the responsibility to report it to someone within the hospital who can and will get the situation corrected. If the situation can not be corrected or resolved within the SPD, recruit assistance from the infection prevention and control department.

• Get involved.

Patient safety and performance improvement are at the top of most healthcare facilities’ agenda. Sterile processing technicians can bring a unique perspective to performance improvement teams and, in most states, must have representation on the infection prevention and control committee. This committee should be a forum to monitor load recalls, flash sterilization, the release of implantable items prior the known results of biological monitoring and any other practice that has the potential for adverse patient outcomes. This committee is also the place to report successes in the SPD. Are you proud of your error rate? Have you had an extended period with no recalls? These have a positive impact on patient safety and should be touted. Sterile processing professionals should also become involved in their professional organizations. The networking and continuing education provided can be invaluable to the ongoing success of sterile processing professionals and their overall department by keeping staff abreast of the latest industry trends, practices and standards.

While technicians likely have heard or read these suggestions before, many have yet to fully embrace them and take the necessary steps to ensure the best outcomes for the customers and patients they serve. Becoming educated, certified and involved is a way to stay on par with the other healthcare professionals in our hospitals, while driving positive outcomes and elevating the profession to the status it deserves.

Lisa S. Huber, BA, CRCST, FCS, ACE, is sterile processing director for Anderson Hospital in Maryville, Ill. and is president of the International Association of Healthcare Central Service Materiel Management (IAHCSMM).

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