Not 'Just' Sterile Processors: HSPA Talks Industry Changes Ahead of Annual Meeting

Infection Control Today, Volume 26, Issue 4

Staff shortages, public recognition, and moving out of the medical field are all issues that the sterile processing industry has faced.

The challenges of COVID-19 on the sterile processing industry have been profound—how the industry is viewed by others and the importance of having humility toward each other while the profession and the world around it changes. Specifically, dealing with staff shortages has been challenging as staff leave to go to other positions outside of the medical field and how sterile processing doesn’t stay at work any longer; it is now a 24-hour consideration. Sterile processors now are more recognized by the public, as well as the C-suite, as vital to making the world a safer place.

To receive more insight on the changes in the sterile procession industry, ICT interviewed Damien Berg, BA, BS, CRCST, AAMIF, the Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at with the (HSPA), formerly IAHCSMM.They are busy getting ready for their annual meeting, which is going to be held in San Antonio, Texas, at the end of April.

Infection Control Today®: Damien, thank you so much for joining me today.

Damien Berg, BA, BS, CRCST, AAMIF:Oh, it's my pleasure to be here. And thank you for inviting me to be here. It's a crazy time of the year as you can imagine. We're ramping up, and we're ready to go. But I'm glad to take some time for you and your readers.

ICT: Can you talk to me about what you're most excited about for this year's meeting? What can attendees look forward to?

DB: Obviously, we're excited to go live. It's been a long 2 years for everybody across the board. I don't care what organization, hospital, what profession. It's been a long 2 years, but this year, more so than others. The first year [of the pandemic], we were supposed to be in Chicago, which was going to be a great kind of homecoming because that's where our corporate offices are at, then we were supposed to be in Ohio. And now we're in the great state of Texas. It’s just amazing to be in a central location where everybody can come together. Professionals, industry, regulatory, you name it—people have a passion for this. The outpouring of support and the excitement is just amazing. The venue is set. The speakers are lined up. We've got a great agenda. And we're just really excited to get this going. I've been hearing nothing but positive [feedback] across the board.

ICT: We're excited to attend. Taking a step back, can you talk a little bit about what some of the overall goals for HSPA are for 2022?

DB: Great question. I took this job in July of 2021, and it is the vice president of strategic initiatives. But I also served prior as the past president of the Board of Directors, which is an elected volunteer position. The Board of Directors, who I have a dotted line to, sets goals and strategic plans 3 years out. We look 3 years ahead and go, “This is where we want to move our organization.”

HSPA, with a name change and everything else, we're growing, and we're just moving really at a rapid pace forward. We have almost 40,000 members and certificates around the globe. And with that, we set very bold strategic plans, goals, and objectives for our organization to do. I give my boss, Susan Adams, the executive director, a lot of credit, looking at that going, “Boy, the operations of a large organization like this, and keeping your focus on the goals of our organization, and our membership is a challenge.” They brought me on board in July, and I left my traditional hospital job with University of Colorado as a manager, which was really tough. But I'm really excited because we've got some great goals.

We're expanding our educational opportunities. We're expanding something called “research,” which I'm very excited for. There'll be—I'm going to give you a little teaser here—at the annual conference, we're going to do a big announcement on a research strategic initiative that we have, going forward partnering with industry for the first time ever on something that's never been done in our field. So between research, between educational opportunities, and between elevating our chapters around the country around the globe, [those] are really our goals for ’22, and it's all going to really come to head during the conference in San Antonio.

ICT: What sort of challenges did COVID-19 bring with it for sterile processing professionals? Have you noticed that those have subsided at all as the pandemic has gone on?

DB: I'm still a per diem sterile processing tech for the University of Colorado, so I'm still keeping my toes in the world; I still love to visit my old hospitals, and I work side-by-side with them. And I just love the technicians. I lived through the COVID times with them, and I still know what they're going through right now. I think COVID just changed the way we were looked at and viewed. No time in my 29 years of doing this, I know I dated myself a little there, but no time that I see more people ask us for stuff like, “What's the contact time,” and “Can you kill this?” They really look to us [as] the experts. So us as a profession standing up, us as departments, standing up was so important this year. Everybody's tired. Not only are you dealing with long workdays, hours, but also you're dealing with [a lot] at home. You're dealing when you go to a restaurant. You're dealing when your kids go to school and changing school hours and all that stuff. I think anybody's that heard me talk [knows] I talk about investing into human capital. We can invest in new equipment and all the tools we need to do and all the training. With a new job with the human capital is so important. And what I saw during COVID times is it’s more important ever just to have a little bit of humility towards our people because not only what we're going through in a department dealing with COVID in a hospital and having to go to work, I never did not go to work. We always had work to do. We just had to rethink how we had to do it.

But also we had the stress of our life going on. So having grace [with] my employees, and my staff and other people around the country, just being able to listen to them, I think has been the biggest challenge we have. Obviously, the challenges we had before COVID still exist, as they do after COVID. But then you add the personal aspect to it. And then sometimes there are staff shortages out there. There's a lot of things going on. In the health care profession that transcends sterile processing; we're just one piece of that. And so my job is to listen and to be that advocate for our profession to the C-suite leadership. I've still traveled around the country; I talked to C-suites, and I’m elevating our people behind the scenes so that when they do the good work [that] they do, they’re recognized, and they feel important. And that's the thing, I think really the challenge is feeling that sense of importance that you are a piece of the patient care, that you don't have to say that “I'm just a sterile processing technician”; you are a sterile processing technician, not “just,” you are a key role, just as a nurse, just as a doctor, just as a CEO, just as a vice president. Whatever you are, you are very important. And that's really what my challenge is this year is to keep pounding that drum, raising that flag on behalf of our profession.

ICT: Absolutely. It's interesting because, during COVID, everything about sterile processing and infection prevention did sort of creep out of the 9 AM to 5 PM confines, and you're taking it home with you, in a sense, just because it was everywhere. We've been hearing a little bit of chatter about an exodus of sterile processing personnel from the industry. Do you think that that's true? And if so, what can be done to combat that?

DB: I have seen it across the board. I think it's really regional is what I want to kind of get to, it's not just based into, yes, that's nationally as a sterile processing problem. What we've seen as our membership, our certificates, and our education platform has continued to grow even through COVID. So we know they're just not people dropping their certifications or getting out of the field, but just shifting where they're working and how they're working. It has been a change in how we work. I think there's a different mindset. So I'm excited to say that our profession is growing in all indicators. But I think in certain areas we are struggling more than others.

I talked to some really good colleagues and friends [on the] East Coast, and they're struggling to find people. I think there is definitely a change in “Do people want to be in health care?” period, whether it's sterile processing, or nursing or surgical tech, or you name it. Do they want to be in that profession where maybe they can be in a different profession, that doesn't have the stress and the burden of what we do? But I can tell you, I'm proud to say that the people I've visited around the country, they're so proud of what they do. I think now's the time more than ever that they recognize people. You know, as well as I do, I've been to places where people go, “What do you do?” And I say, “Sterile processing.” They go, “What is that?” And then go, “Okay” then they kind of glaze over.

Now I say, “I’m part of the profession that cleans, sterilizes, and disinfects surgical instruments,” and they go, “Oh, my God, that's so important.” COVID has changed that marriage. So I think the exodus is people that are burnt out or tired, but also mean they're moving to a different area in the health care profession, or in the sterile process and going from a traditional hospital, to maybe traveling to maybe working in industry. I know a lot of my peers…I mean, look at me, but I left the hospital, per se. So I am part of that exodus, too, but I'm doing something bigger, and I'm doing something better for the profession. So that's my hope. That's my feel out there is that our profession is still growing, but I think people are changing and moving around in the health care world.

ICT: Absolutely. We're seeing that with infection preventionists too. Right now, everywhere wants an infection preventionist on staff because of COVID.

DB: Yeah, because infection prevention is kind of that weird, nebulous job out there. And now it's so important. You're absolutely right. And we, again, we talked about it earlier is what did COVID do to change it? It changed our narrative. We aren't just the people in the basement washing dishes, which, I hate that term. But it is much more than that. It is about the contact time, the dwell time to kill ratio, the science, the science behind what we do. And the training we need to have. You can't just pick someone up and put them in a department where there's an infection preventionist, an OR nurse. I mean, I can tell you, OR nurses in my hospital went and worked in ICUs. You talked about a different skill set. You could take an OR nurse and put them in ICU and say, “Do that patient care.” You could take a sterile processing tech and put them in ICU and say, “Help them with their PPE.” But you can't take an ICU person and say go to sterile processing into what we do. It doesn't translate or go into the OR. It doesn't translate. Such a unique skillset, and IPs are the same thing. I just love them to death. We've bonded, and we became so much closer during this time that I want to continue to see that grow.

ICT: What advice do you have for the sterile processing department when it comes to approaching the C-suite for either support or buy-in?

DB: I love that question. I am so passionate about telling our story. So you got to think: Different departments, whether it's a C-suite, whether it's an ER, whether it’s an OR, or whether it's sterile processing, they all have a different vision and view of their life in their day-to-day operations. So you can't go to a C-suite and say, “We're the most important people in the world because we're the heart of the hospital.” Yes, we are. Yes, we do. But we’ve got to tell the business case, we’ve got to tell why it's important. I love telling this story...When I got back to my health care system—I've moved around a couple different health care systems—but a couple years ago, when I landed my old job back but expanded, the CEO met with me, and, it was, “Damian, glad to have you back.” And I said, “Yes, sir.” I said, “What can I do for you?” He goes, “Keep me out of the newspaper.” That was the CEO knowing that a sterile processing department can really have a negative, detrimental impact to the image and the brand of a health care system, a hospital, and especially a C-suite.

So we need to tell our story [about] what we do, not my just standing on a table saying, “We're important!” because everybody in the hospital is important—from [those working in] the security and environmental services [departments], to the cooks, to [those working in] sterile processing, to the nurses and the doctors.We’re a team. We need to show what we do and speak to it—in their language—by showing value and by showing the need.

We can hurt a hospital. We don't generate revenue; sterile processing do not make money, but we can cost you a lot of money. By explaining and showing that to a C-suite, they fund you, and they appreciate you. I can tell you the hospital system that I just left—that I'm still part of—they funded us. Multiple hospitals that I've managed, we got all new sterilizers, we got new floors, we got refreshes, we got it all because I had to share the business case. I kept the doctors happy. I kept the nurses, staff feeling confident about what we do. Let me rephrase that. I didn't do it. My team did. They made it happen. And when the doctors are happy, when the nurses are happy with the scrub techs [are] happy, and the patients keep coming back to our hospital, then the C-suite understands our value. Then the C-suite funds us. The C-suite appreciates us. It's about us elevating ourselves, learning their language, and appreciating what they can do for us.

It [has] just made a world of difference. And that's what I'm doing. I'm talking to C-suites around the country. Right now. Currently, I just met with one yesterday, and just say, “Hey, guys, this is what your department does [for you]. Are your staff certified? Do you have a career path for them? Do you pay them so that you don't have high turnover rate in this very important job?” Guess what? They're buying into it. They're doing it. They're seeing it because they see the value. They hear the bad stories, when departments don't go [well], and they don't want to be part of that. So that's a story we need to tell.

ICT: Is there anything else that you'd like to share?

DB: No, I just thank you. I thank your readers, your listeners, your viewers, for all you do. I'm excited for San Antonio here in April. If you have not registered to attend, please do. It's going to be an amazing conference. Our attendance is growing up. We have amazing vendors, amazing speakers, and I look forward to seeing as many people as possible. If you see me out there, say hi! I'm all over social media. You can reach out to me; I'm happy to talk to your C-suite. I'm happy to talk to your leadership. I'm happy to talk to you. So just thank you for what you do. And thank you, all you professionals for what you do out there every day.