Travel Advisory: Traveling Techs Changing Face of SPD

May 25, 2023

A major disruption in America’s labor force happened at the height of the pandemic, with an estimated 50 million workers leaving their jobs. So many workers quit that it has been referred to as the great resignation.1 Whether it was to search for better work-life-balance, greater flexibility, increased compensation, or improved work culture, it certainly left gaps in many industries—including healthcare and Sterile Processing.

Interestingly, corporate profits are at an all-time high, outpacing labor costs and leaving frontline workers’ wages waning in comparison.2 Numerous studies have been published about the shortages of medical professionals (mostly, registered nurses and physicians), but little is being reported on the shortage of allied healthcare professionals. A survey conducted by AMN Healthcare revealed that 85% of the facilities surveyed are experiencing shortages in this category.3 The Bureau of Labor Statistics has predicted that by 2029 there will be a need for over 70,000 [SP] technicians.4

Although SP has made more headlines in recent years due to patient safety risks and even infections associated with improperly processed medical instrumentation, it has been my experience as a healthcare consultant that not enough healthcare organizations are doing what they should to improve the working conditions, environment and culture of their SPDs. Inadequate staffing, outdated equipment, limited device inventories to safely meet procedural demands, cramped workspaces, and pay that isn’t commensurate with the difficult roles and duties for which SP technicians are responsible are all-too-common occurrences. The risks are real—not only for those working in the SPD but also for the healthcare customers and patients they serve.

SP leaders nationally are tasked with engaging their workforce while retaining high-quality, skilled and, ideally, certified technicians. On average, SP technicians earn between $16 and $21 per hour, although education level, experience and certifications held can play into the equation.5 Of course, the state and region where one works also affect pay.6 In comparison, traveling SP technicians make $62,336 on average nationally, and some salaries top $91,000.7 As a result of more traveling technicians, many facilities seeking full-time, non-traveling technicians have had to hire inexperienced employees who require focused training, onboarding and mentoring before they can confidently and competently step into the role.

Personally, I have witnessed healthcare organizations being reticent to move salaries above market-wage averages or provide compensation incentives such as retention or hiring bonuses or even modest monetary increases for those who hold certifications. In one instance, I worked for a client organization that lost four tenured SP professionals in a single day because the organization refused to review technicians’ compensation and consider increases based on their deep experience, contributions, and commitment to quality and professionalism. Six weeks later, those same employees returned to the facility as traveling technicians—at far higher compensation.

Higher compensation isn’t the only lure for traveling technicians. It can also create exciting personal and professional opportunities, allowing employees to see different areas of the country, explore a variety of healthcare settings, experience how other organizations apply best practices, and more. One technician I worked with recently shared how she had never been on an airplane or even traveled out of her home state. Now, having worked three years as a traveling technician, she has experienced five states and seen things she only read about previously. Another experienced, full-time traveling technician and empty-nester sold her home and now says she is saving well for her retirement because she is living comfortably in hotels and has her vehicle and meal costs covered by the hospitals that employ her.

Hospitals must do better

Healthcare organizations should take note of the employment shifts and how a growing lack of interest in full-time, non-traveling, low-compensation healthcare positions can jeopardize patient safety and customer service outcomes. Traveling technicians can certainly be quality contributors to the existing SP team, but they require the same onboarding, training and attention as any other new employee; what they may have done in previous facilities may not align with the existing facility’s policies and procedures, or even the latest industry standards.

Likewise, it is essential that traveling SP technicians are viewed as a traditional member of the team, and encouraged to identify any questionable practices that may counter instructions for use, standards, and guidelines. Over time, travelers will have experienced many different departments and, possibly, ways of doing things, so their knowledge and input should be solicited and celebrated just like full-time, non-traveling employees. Above all, every employee—full-time, traveling or otherwise—must be carefully vetted and observed to ensure they are following appropriate policies and practices.

There are times when hiring traveling technicians is a necessary and viable approach to filling staffing gaps, but I advocate for temporary contracts and a greater emphasis on establishing better hiring and retention strategies to attract and keep more full-time, skilled employees. SP technicians play a vital role in patient care, infection prevention, and other positive outcomes. It is time healthcare organizations look closely at the compensation and employment offerings being provided for SP professionals and ensure that the SPD culture and environment meet the needs of today’s quality-focused, experienced, and professional SP technicians and leaders.