Celebrate the Critical Role of the Sterile Processing Profession in Infection Prevention

Infection Control TodayInfection Control Today, July/August 2021 (Vol. 25 No. 6)
Volume 25
Issue 6

Infection preventionists are integral members of the extended sterile processing department team and can be among the department’s biggest supporters.

The second Sunday of every October marks the first day of Sterile Processing Week, running this year from October 10 through 16. As is the case every year, well-planned, meaningful, and memorable events should properly celebrate the vital contributions of our nation’s quality-focused professionals in the sterile processing (SP) field who promote patient safety and positive patient outcomes.

The International Association of Healthcare Central Service Materiel Management (IAHCSMM) has always viewed SP professionals as crucial contributors to patient care, not unlike frontline caregivers. The association also knows that, unfortunately, some facilities still don’t give members of the SP department (SPD) the acknowledgment and appreciation they deserve. In some cases, facility executives may not be aware of Sterile Processing Week because SP leadership hasn’t taken the time to inform them; perhaps, the leadership has never taken the time to meet with those in the C-suite to help explain the difficult and crucial processes that take place within the walls of the SPD—and how those processes affect patient outcomes.

Some SP professionals themselves, in fact, may be unaware that there’s an entire week dedicated to them and their discipline. Some may be new to the profession, and others may not

Julie Williamson

Julie Williamson

have had the opportunity to read IAHCSMM’s many articles, tips, and tributes for them each year. Even some who are aware of the dedicated week each October may lack a celebratory spirit if their SP leaders and interdisciplinary colleagues fail to acknowledge their profession and the hard work it requires. Ultimately, one key point remains: This yearly honorary week should never be overlooked. Regardless of their title or tenure, every SP professional should be recognized for their hard work and dedication to quality customer service and patient safety.

Tap SPD’s Top Allies

Managers who haven’t already begun their Sterile Processing Week planning still have time to create thoughtful and successful events to honor their teams and get other disciplines involved.

Although celebrating within the department’s walls is a good approach, casting a wider net can yield even more success. In many facilities, SP professionals remain the “unsung heroes,” primarily because members of other health care disciplines often lack understanding of what SP entails and how challenging the jobs are. Sterile Processing Week presents a perfect opportunity to invite other health care professionals to tour the department and see for themselves what it takes to process instruments; they can ask questions and even participate in or contribute to some education. Drawing other disciplines into Sterile Processing Week festivities isn’t just good for SP professionals’ morale; it also can help set the stage for improved interdisciplinary communication and teamwork.

It’s prudent to invite professionals from the surgical services department and other departments the SPD serves to planned Sterile Processing Week events, but it’s equally important to include the facility’s infection preventionists (IPs). IPs are integral members of the extended SPD team and can be among the department’s biggest supporters. SP leaders who haven’t yet forged an effective relationship with their IPs should start establishing a more productive partnership now, before the official Sterile Processing Week kickoff, then carry that momentum into the weeks, months, and years ahead.

Prior to the week’s official start, consider setting up a meeting with the IPs to discuss the SPD’s challenges, successes, and goals, and then work collaboratively to help best address them. Is the SP team operating at a staffing deficiency? Is your instrument inventory poorly matched with the facility’s surgical and procedural volume? Is your processing equipment frequently on the fritz and unable to meet the load demands? Are the standards in the SPD outdated (or missing altogether)? Are continuing education and certification efforts falling short? When IPs are apprised of the struggles SP professionals face, they can help SP leadership build a stronger case with the surgical services department and with facility executives by using essential data to drive positive change.

SP leaders can take a further step by asking their IPs to help honor the week and the SP team by drafting a brief statement about the department’s critical importance to infection prevention and patient safety. They can also assist in sharing impressive SPD-related statistics such as low error rates, the number of instrument sets processed this year so far, and how the department has worked to curtail immediate-use steam sterilization. In addition, they can promote the merits of certification and ongoing education. This information could then be shared with the human resources or public relations teams for inclusion in the facility’s newsletter, or perhaps even shared with local media as a way to educate the general public on the SPD’s essential contributions to patient safety. Asking IPs to participate in a Sterile Processing Week educational session is another great way to strengthen the bond between the 2 disciplines.

Don’t forget the organization’s senior executives, either. These individuals may have only a vague understanding of instrument processing and the importance of SP professionals. They often aren’t aware of the extent of the SPD’s contributions, successes, and sacrifices—and it’s up to SP leaders to show them.

It’s helpful to invite these senior executives “to observe the intricate sequential workflow processes that must be followed to promote positive quality outcomes and patient safety—being sure to explain the steps and processes along the way,” IAHCSMM’s immediate past president, Brian Reynolds, CRCST, CIS, CER, CHL, explained. Reynolds, assistant chief of sterile processing services for the West Palm Beach VA Medical Center in Florida, also stressed the importance of detailing the future goals and objectives of the SPD that align with the health care organization’s mission, vision, and values.

Don’t Let Budgets Derail Plans

Nearly every year,IAHCSMM hears from SP professionals who lament that limited budgets lead their facilities and managers to overlook Sterile Processing Week. IAHCSMM consistently reminds all SP professionals that some of the best ways to honor the profession and those who are in it require little or no outlay of capital.

Heartfelt words of appreciation from their bosses, interdepartmental colleagues, and top-level executives typically matter more than, say, pizza parties or celebratory trinkets—which are nice add-ons if budgets allow but certainly aren’t a requirement. SP managers should consider carving out time to personally thank each employee for their specific contributions, recognize their strengths and growth areas, and share how they contributed to the team’s success. Leaders can also discuss career ladder opportunities with each employee and initiate a plan to help put them on the path to professional growth.

Other low-cost ways to honor the SP team include hosting departmental tours and fun in-department educational offerings such as vendor-led in-services or trivia-style games that the SP team and other health care professionals who visit the department during SP Week can participate in to broaden their knowledge. Ideally, managers will plan 1 event per shift for every day of SP Week.

Above all, SP leaders should work to remind their technicians and educators that they are valued, appreciated, supported, and heard—not just during Sterile Processing Week, but every day of the year.

IAHCSMM has created a number of free Sterile Processing Week templates and celebration materials (including posters, thank-you cards, certificates of excellence, and Sterile Processing Week departmental tour invitation letters) that can be customized, downloaded/printed, and easily posted/shared. Visit https://www.iahcsmm.org/about/sp-week.html. Note: Templates will be updated for 2021 in the coming weeks.

JULIE E. WILLIAMSON is the communications director/editor for the International Association of Healthcare Central Service Materiel Management, an Infection Control Today® Strategic Alliance Partner.

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