The Importance of Technical and Clinical Knowledge in the Sterile Processing Department

Sterile Processing is, more often than not, at least by hospital administrators and those areas which SPD serves, looked upon as merely a service department not unlike food and nutrition or environmental services. Not to discount the roles that these other areas play in the healthcare setting, for they truly are important and essential and impact patient care, sterile processing is much more than just a support service and more directly impacts patient care and surgeon satisfaction.

Sterile processing is both a clinical and technical field requiring much knowledge and responsibility. Sure, pretty much anyone can be taught how to do the job and get by at it. But in sterile processing, it is so important for the technician to understand the theory behind and rationale for what he or she is doing in the department. For example, a technician who truly has a good grasp of the principles of microbiology is going to be better equipped to work adequately in decontamination and provide a better quality product than someone who lacks such understanding.

The same is true of sterilization and sterilization validation. Yes, anyone can place something into a machine, press a button, and remove the item and send it over to surgery (but there is more to sterilization and sterilization validation that microwaving a bag of popcorn!) How much better it would be if all techs everywhere could explain how the product was verified as being decontaminated adequately to minimize microbial counts satisfactorily enough to suffice for prep and package, ensure that the product was prepared according to standard and recommended practice, assure that product was placed into a sterilizer unit properly tested and functioning according to the manufacturer's guidelines and state how they know this, that the product was sterilized at the appropriate time, temperature, pressure, and at the right sterilant saturation level, that sterilization integrity was maintained post sterilization and during transport to point of use or storage, etc.

Sadly, as most CS / SPD managers will attest, though most SPD technicians can perform the job at a "just getting by" level, many lack the technical and clinical knowledge base that would enable them to be more effective infection control and prevention specialists ( which is truly what an SPD tech is in the perioperative setting).

It is common knowledge, despite the knowledge and skill, not to mention the responsibility, required of the SPD professional, that sterile processing is an under served, under recognized, and underpaid profession. If we are to raise our standing within the healthcare community, we are going to have to start focusing on three things:

1) Education. 2) State-mandated professional certification. 3) And, perhaps even, state licensure.

The first step is education. There needs to be more educational opportunities made available and this opportunities should be both accessible and affordable. For example, professional organizations, independent initiatives such as The Central Sterile Processing Initiative, vendors, etc. should partner together (or even on their own) to produce more and better educational materials. Not more vendor-specific in-service material, not short articles that provide a few credits to keep up certification (these are all good and fine and recommended as part of the overall plan but should not be the only options) but rather a comprehensive educational paradigm shift and concomitant curriculum.

One of the most powerful ways to reach the SPD professional today is via the Internet – online courses and training, at affordable rates will be what sets the stage for the next generation of SPD professionals.

Copyright 2010 by Shane Huey. All rights reserved.

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