Archive January 2017 XVIII, No. 1

Infection Prevention: The Quest for Competent Sterile Processors

It's a dirty job, but it's got to be done right. Here's how you can help.

reprocessing subject matter expert WATCHFUL EYE Every facility should have a reprocessing subject matter expert who's responsible for keeping up to date with standards and guidelines.

The best surgeons, anesthesia providers and nurses in the world can't provide safe, high-quality patient care if sterile processing doesn't do its job. But shockingly, despite the crucial nature of their assignment, and despite the negative publicity generated by outbreaks and mistakes in recent years, we're still falling short when it comes to reprocessing reusable medical instruments.

In the first 6 months of 2015, The Joint Commission cited more than half of all hospitals and surgery centers for noncompliance to the infection prevention and control standard (IC.02.02.01), according to the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation (AAMI). Why is it happening, and how can you make sure subpar sterile processing doesn't endanger lives and reputations at your facility?

Market factors
First, let's acknowledge what might be a slightly uncomfortable truth. Sterile processing techs are often very underpaid and under-appreciated, considering the significance of the job they do. They're victims of supply and demand. Only 4 states (N.Y., N.J., Conn., and as of just recently, Tenn.) require sterile processors to be certified, and no special education or degree is required anywhere. So, theoretically, almost anyone can be hired to do the job.

Combine that reality with the limited resources often available to hospitals and surgery centers and it's easy to see how lapses happen. But if we didn't realize it before, we certainly should now — in light of all the recent issues and publicity — that proper training and continuous documented competency are absolute musts. Even if your state doesn't require your reprocessors to be certified, maybe your facility should.

Have an expert
How can you make sure your sterile processors are competent? Every facility should have a subject matter expert (SME) — a manager, supervisor or educator who's responsible for staying up to date with current published standards and guidelines. The staying-up-to-date part is crucial. Your SME can't rely on what she learned 20, 10, or even 5 years ago. Change is constant, and compliance with evidence-based practice is a must.

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