Education nation: the sterile processing renaissance

Sept. 22, 2022

The Sterile Processing (SP) profession has undergone notable changes in recent years. Veteran SP professionals may recall days when instrumentation was simpler in design and easier to clean and sterilize, personal protective equipment (PPE) involved little more than a pair of scrubs and gloves, and autoclaves had a submarine-door locking mechanism, to name just a few examples.

Today, changes impacting healthcare delivery and the complexity of cutting-edge procedures—and the devices and equipment needed to perform them safely—are stimulating growth opportunities in the SP discipline. The availability of new and emerging information, science and technology is creating a major shift from the “way we have always done it” and instead igniting an educational revolution.

Electronic communication via web pages, email, social media and direct messaging have allowed SP contributors to more readily access new information as it becomes available; as a result, information barriers and education silos that historically existed have begun to crumble.  The ease of accessibility has created limitless seats at the information table and is allowing more SP professionals to broaden their knowledge and expertise and improve their services to their healthcare customers and patients.

Professional responsibilities, personal upbringing, and hands-on experience all contribute to the way individuals seek and interpret information. Take, for instance, the implementation of an SP electronic tracking system. An upper-level executive may consider such a system too costly and unnecessary, however, a perioperative nurse may see it as a way to help perform their end count, a manager may view it as a way to assess productivity, an instrument coordinator might consider it the most effective way to track instrument use, maintenance and repairs, frontline workers may see it as a more streamlined way to perform quality checks, and so on. Therefore, the benefits of all big decisions (including capital equipment purchases and educational endeavors) must be carefully explored, with decisions factoring in far more than just the initial expense.

Quality SP educators needed

Education passes on the knowledge and values of a group of individuals and can bridge the gap between one profession’s goals and priorities and another’s ability to help them achieve them. This exchange and flow of internal information and knowledge creates a multidisciplinary group culture.

An educator’s responsibility is to relay information about the group’s new shared understanding and how each of their roles impact patient safety. Put simply, an educator serves as a leader, but without traditional management responsibility; this dynamic can promote a more relaxed and trusting relationship between the SP professionals and the educator. In most healthcare professions, the use of an educator/preceptor has become expected. Professions that hire qualified and skilled educators have seen success in multiple areas—including their ability to create more consistent practices, onboard more effectively, and improve employee satisfaction. Still, the dedicated educator is a fairly new role for many SPDs, and one that isn’t always easy to fill. While many facilities search for experienced candidates, the positions frequently go unfilled due to a limited pool of educators with critical SP experience. On the other hand, some organizations are forced to hire an educator from a non-SP-related background. Neither result is ideal.

Professional development in the SP space is necessary for both the educator and employees who serve as students. This ensures that educators have the knowledge, tools and resources to develop an effective career ladder program and ensure that all SP team members receive the training and support needed to stay ahead of industry, standard, technology and policy changes, and attain and maintain certifications. Quality educators also define goals and incorporate objectives.

New SP educators must remember that everyone plays a different role in the quest for patient safety, and challenging the way the department has always done something will be necessary and, at times, difficult. SP technicians and leaders will count on the educator to teach and translate new information effectively and consistently across all shifts. Educators may also experience personal biases in the role, so it is important to be aware of that risk and avoid judgmental statements such as “they ought to know,” “It’s common sense,” or “Why can’t they just—.” Moral uprightness and high mindedness are unfortunate side effects of an SP educator who has used their own professional experience (as opposed to science-based data and information) to propel employee education and training. Personal biases can perpetuate the “this is how we have always done it” mindset and prevent positive changes and knowledge advancement that can benefit the team and the organization.

The fact that healthcare involves many overlapping roles and responsibilities throughout the facility brings pros and cons. While the doctor is held accountable for surgical site infections, the surgical tech maintains a sterile back table, the SP technician assures devices are clean, sterile and well-functioning, and the Infection Preventionist monitors statistics and creates policies to help prevent infections; however, each may lack an understanding of the others’ roles and how they contribute to patient outcomes. A skilled and competent educator can help bridge those gaps and promote greater interdisciplinary understanding and perspective, all while helping ensure that SP technicians have the knowledge, training and support needed to grow and thrive in their roles and better meet the needs of their customers.

Conclusion

The SP revolution is making a significant turn toward quality and excellence within the profession. Hiring dedicated, skilled educators is an essential part of this trend, as is ensuring that all available educational resources are utilized to their fullest potential. With the amount of challenging ideas, new information, and pertinent data more readily available, facilities cannot afford to ignore the importance of quality SP educators and the need for greater interdisciplinary teamwork and knowledge sharing. 

Original photo courtesy Bayhealth SPD, HPN's 2021 SPD of the Year, with affects added by generative AI.
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