The sterile processing department plays a key role in patient safety. Infection preventionists should not only understand how reusable instruments are cleaned and sterilized, but should actively collaborate with the sterile processing department.
After a hospital in California recently went through a highly publicized outbreak of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, it traced the source back to specialized endoscopes used in a complex procedure meant to examine the liver, bile ducts, and pancreas. Seven patients became ill, two died, and nearly 200 people may have been exposed to this dangerous pathogen, which somehow survived the process of decontamination and sterilization.
Reusable medical devices are common in hospitals. They are generally designed to be cleaned safely through sterile processing, a multiple-step process that removes blood and solid contaminants and inactivates living pathogens through the use of heat, steam, or disinfectants. Yet, as we have seen, the process sometimes fails and contaminated instruments are put back in use. In the wake of this latest event involving the endoscopes, hospitals, infection preventionists, and sterile processing professionals are re-examining their policies and processes. Other stakeholders include the manufacturers of surgical instruments and medical devices, and federal and state regulatory agencies, including the FDA.
The issue of certification
There is currently a hodge-podge of certification requirements for sterile processing professionals. Certification currently may or may not be required by state regulation or hospital policy. Yet, as with other healthcare specialties, earning certification demonstrates that a professional has achieved a certain level of competency in a field and has the theoretical knowledge to understand why tasks are processes are performed in a specific manner. If you’re an infection preventionist or surgical nurse, you may not even know what kind of training the sterile processing staff in your hospital have had. Now is the time to find out, and to actively encourage hospital policies that ensure ongoing education for sterile processing staff. This is one more way you can demonstrate a commitment to quality and safety.
The issue of collaboration
A recent article in Infection Control Today discussed the idea that we need more collaboration between the infection prevention department and the sterile processing department, which may be set up in silos. Some infection preventionists may have never visited the sterile processing area, and many don’t truly understand the basic steps, practices, and principles that govern the process of decontamination and sterilization that is used on surgical instruments and reusable medical devices. Yet every infection preventionist should understand the impact that a process failure or non-compliance with approved procedures can have on patient outcomes—and on the hospital’s reputation. Likewise, sterile processing professionals should get to know the infection prevention team, seek input when revising policies, and keep IP staff informed when equipment manufacturers change cleaning recommendations for specific instruments.
Infection prevention as a career opportunity
The current, industry-wide focus on reducing HAIs is expanding career opportunities for nurses who want to specialize in infection prevention. Are you interested in keeping patients safe from pathogens in a hospital environment? If planning, implementing, and evaluating infection prevention and control measures appeals to you, consider making this in-demand field your career specialty. As a first step, you can develop new skills and empower yourself with knowledge through an online RN to MSN degree with a specialization in infection control from American Sentinel University, an innovative, accredited provider of online nursing degrees.