Sterile Processing Department Challenges

The Top 9 Challenges Sterile Processing Departments Face

Arthur Trapotsis
Written by: Arthur Trapotsis

MS Biochemical Engineering, MBA, Consultant

There’s a reason why Sterile Processing Departments (SPDs) are often referred to as “the heart of the hospital.” This is where all of a healthcare facility’s soiled surgical instruments and other devices go for cleaning and sterilization, ensuring they’ll be ready to use during future procedures. Additionally, the SPD plays a crucial role in maintaining patient safety by helping lower the risk of healthcare-associated infections (HAIs).

As with any department, SPDs face challenges during their day-to-day operations. However, given the critical role they play in keeping healthcare facilities running smoothly, it’s important for SPDs to have a set of solutions to their most common hurdles. Here we’ll detail those obstacles and highlight some of the most effective techniques SPDs can use to overcome them.

Core Sterile Processing Department Responsibilities

While preparing instruments and equipment for future use is the main focus of SPDs at Ambulatory Surgery Centers (ASCs) and hospitals, these departments oversee much more than sterilization. Some of the other processes that an SPD oversees include:

  • Collecting used instruments and other devices
  • Sorting devices and instruments based on decontamination needs
  • Cleaning and decontaminating soiled instruments either manually or in specialized mechanical washers
  • Ensuring that sterilized instrument packs get distributed to the correct operating rooms or patient care areas
  • Following proper sterile storage guidelines for all instruments not slated for immediate re-use
  • Documenting processes and keeping records of all sterilization procedures

Sterile Processing: An Essential Service

Since following proper sterilization guidelines is tantamount to maintaining patient safety, an inefficient or ineffective SPD can present certain risks for the patients they serve as well as the healthcare facilities themselves. For patients, these risks include higher infection rates, procedural delays and low satisfaction, while hospitals and ASCs can experience damaged reputations and even receive citations and fines from regulatory authorities.

The Top 9 Challenges Sterile Processing Departments Face

So, what types of challenges are SPDs most likely to encounter? These nine are the most common:

1. Staffing Issues

Whether this manifests in the form of shortages or insufficient training opportunities for current employees, staffing presents a significant challenge for SPDs. While crises such as technician shortages lead to staff burnout and delays in processing, the consequences that come with a lack of training can be more disastrous. Sterilization errors lead to an increased risk of infection for patients.

Overcoming the Challenge

Make a concerted effort to retain current staff members. Recognizing hard work, revisiting compensation packages and offering opportunities for professional development all go a long way toward keeping top talent around for longer.

2. Lack of Standardization

A disorganized SPD is one where it’s easier for mistakes to happen. Standardized instructions and processes help reduce the risk of making costly errors and help to keep team members accountable.

Overcoming the Challenge

Industry standards and regulations are in place for a reason: They help keep patients safe. Adopting best practices when it comes to the proper handling, cleaning and sterilization of instruments will help reduce the potential for HAIs.

3. Outdated or Inadequate Equipment

Though older equipment may score a few points for its familiarity, this is where the list of benefits ends. Antiquated sterilization technology is much more prone to malfunctions and becomes less effective over time, making its use an unreliable solution for SPDs. Additionally, not having enough equipment to meet demand is an equally devastating problem, resulting in postponed procedures and unhappy patients.

Overcoming the Challenge

While investing in new equipment comes with a high initial cost, it saves healthcare facilities much more than money in the long run. Newer sterilization technology is more dependable and won’t cost hospitals and ASCs as much in lost time due to maintenance outages. Many modern sterilization solutions are energy efficient, meaning less power consumption and lower energy bills.

4. Maintaining Integrity of Sterilized Items

Once surgical instruments go through the sterilization process, it’s crucial that they remain sterile before re-use. Many SPDs have digital instrument tracking systems in place to ensure control over their inventory. However, for SPDs that keep track of their sterilized stock on paper, the opportunity for human error increases.

Overcoming the Challenge

In addition to making inventory management easier, implementing a software-based tracking system comes with extra benefits for hospitals and ASCs. Increased operational efficiency, the ability to keep more accurate records and heightened accountability within the department are all added bonuses.

5. Insufficient Space or Storage Resources

All too often, SPDs outgrow their allotted space within a healthcare facility and run into the issue of finding a storage solution that’s sufficient in terms of size and conditions for maintaining sterility. Sterilized instruments are highly sensitive to the surrounding environment and outside factors such as moisture and improper handling can greatly reduce their shelf life.

Overcoming the Challenge

One of the ways that SPDs can work around this challenge is by thinking proactively when planning for the future. To determine how much space may be needed down the road, take a look at the healthcare facility’s projections for growth year over year or metrics surrounding processing demand fluctuations.

6. Difficulty Meeting Regulatory Standards

Whether due to aging sterilization infrastructure, staffing shortages or a lack of training, some SPDs struggle to comply with industry regulations. Falling short of these standards carries serious consequences for healthcare facilities and can lead to loss of accreditation or hefty penalties and fines.

Overcoming the Challenge

Running a compliant SPD requires commitment and coordination and some of the actions that SPDs can take to ensure compliance include standardizing procedures, creating an in-depth and comprehensive training program for new technicians and making sure that documentation of everything from sterilizer records to preventative equipment maintenance is meticulous.

7. Quality Management Issues

While quality management systems (QMSs) are prevalent in healthcare facilities, their migration to the SPD has taken some time. In a department where attention to detail is so crucial, it’s important to foster a culture where quality is front and center. In SPDs where this is lacking, it’s much harder to realize when a process goes wrong or violates an established best practice.

Overcoming the challenge

A QMS is used to document processes, procedures and responsibilities to improve policies and objectives within a department. And implementation goes a long way toward helping SPDs meet regulatory requirements and improve efficiency.

8. Lack of Interdepartmental Communication

Open communication between the SPD and operating room (OR) is crucial to maintaining patient safety. Poor relationships between these two departments can not only impact patient outcomes but result in a compromised quality of care and lead to decreased productivity as well.

Overcoming the Challenge

Establishing (or re-opening) the lines of communication between the SPD and OR can go a long way toward building a solid working relationship. In some cases, all it takes is finding time for representatives from each department to meet and work through any barriers face-to-face.

9. Inadequate Resources

Whether it’s because of a shortage in reliable equipment, staffing or funding, SPDs suffer when asked to operate using limited resources. Increasingly, sterilization teams are asked to do more with less which can lead to errors as a result of cutting corners, skipping important steps in processes or rushing to meet demands.

Overcoming the Challenge

Using techniques such as Lean problem solving, to streamline processes can help eliminate some of the strain. However, in some scenarios, it may make sense to present a case for additional resources to the healthcare facility’s management team.

Is Your Healthcare Facility on The Right Track?

Steam sterilization technology provides a safe and efficient way of overcoming sterile processing challenges while serving an essential purpose in providing comprehensive patient care. Ready to put your ambulatory surgery center sterilization setup to the test? Take our free self-assessment to see whether your current setup sufficiently meets your needs.

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