4 Key Impacts of Sterile Processing in Hospitals and ASCs

Arthur Trapotsis
Written by: Arthur Trapotsis

MS Biochemical Engineering, MBA, Consultant

In hospitals and ambulatory surgery centers (ASCs), sterile processing — the cleaning and sterilizing of soiled surgical instruments and other medical devices — is one of the most important functions for patient care. This process is so integral to the day-to-day operations of surgical facilities that many have dedicated sterile processing departments (SPDs) to ensure that all sterilization protocols and procedures are being followed precisely and efficiently.

The benefits of sterile processing for both patients and healthcare facilities are many, and in this post we’ll take a look at the top four. We’ll also discuss SPDs, highlighting how they work, why they’re important, and the different techniques they use to get the job done. Let’s get started.

What Is Sterile Processing?

Like the name suggests, sterilization itself is an important part of sterile processing. The process entails the cleaning, preparing, storing, and tracking of all reusable devices and instruments. Sterile processing is cyclical, beginning when soiled instruments leave the operating room after a procedure and ending once they’ve been sterilized and can be safely used again.

And when it comes to sterile processing, patient safety is the main focus. According to the CDC, surgical site infections (SSIs) account for 20% of all healthcare-associated infections (HAIs) and can have costly consequences for healthcare facilities. Sterile processing seeks to lower this risk by ensuring that all necessary instruments for procedures are clean and ready for use before being handed off to surgical teams.

Why Is It Important for Hospitals to Have a Sterile Processing Department?

The need for sterilization services in hospitals is constant — without access to sterilized equipment, operations at surgical facilities would grind to a halt. Establishing a dedicated sterile processing department is an effective way for hospitals and ASCs to keep up with demand. Additionally, the SPD plays a crucial part in ensuring compliance with government regulations. Because of the essential nature of the services that they provide, SPDs are often referred to as the “heart” of the hospital.

How exactly does an SPD prep devices for surgery? The short answer is by following an exacting set of standards. But if you’re looking for the full answer, this is how it’s done, step by step:

1.Cleaning & Decontamination

This step occurs once instruments arrive in the department after surgery. Because bacteria and other dangerous microorganisms can’t be completely eradicated until an instrument is free of any substances it touched while in the operating room, the first order of business is decontamination. In the SPD, this is a two-fold process that includes a manual wash before a more intense cleaning from specialized mechanical washers.

2.Assembly & Packaging

After cleaning and decontamination, the instruments are closely inspected and packaged into sets for ease of distribution. Additionally, pre-packaging tools in this manner helps them remain sterile during the stretch of time that exists after they’ve been sterilized and before they’re needed again.


There are certain environmental conditions that viruses, bacteria, and other harmful microorganisms can’t survive. During sterilization, devices and instruments are subjected to such environments to ensure that none of these contaminants remain.The method used typically depends on the type of equipment being sterilized. For example, tools that can withstand extreme temperatures often undergo steam sterilization. Alternatively, for more sensitive devices processes involving lower temperatures are more suitable.

4.Storage & Distribution

After confirming that the sterilization process has been successful, the pre-packaged instruments move to a specialized holding area where they’re kept ready for future surgeries.

What Sterile Processing Techniques Do Hospitals Use?

Hospitals and other healthcare facilities, such as ASCs, rely on many different sterilization techniques. These are some of the most common:

  • Steam sterilization takes place in autoclaves where heat, moisture, and pressure combine to achieve results. Thanks to a comparatively quick and cost effective process, this method is one of the most widely used today.
  • Vaporized hydrogen peroxide technology effectively sterilizes at lower temperatures than steam, and as a result is the preferred method for instruments and devices that can’t handle the heat and pressure of autoclaving.
  • Ethylene oxide sterilization is another low-temperature method that is mostly used for certain polymers as well as glass and metal devices that have hard-to-reach places.

4 Impacts of Proper Sterile Processing in Hospitals

With proper sterilization procedures in place, hospitals and ASCs benefit from the following:

1. Lowered Risk of Surgical Site Infections

Patient safety is always the top priority for healthcare facilities, and following proper sterilization protocols means a lowered risk of infection. Additionally, SSIs cost healthcare facilities both time (in the form of increased stays for patients) and money (due to associated hospitalization costs). Since these types of infections represent a significant portion of all HAIs, those expenses add up. In roughly three percent of cases, SSIs also result in patient death, which can lead to another costly occurrence — lawsuits.

2. Decreased Surgical Delays

Having a sufficient supply of safe-to-use instruments on hand eliminates the need for surgical teams to postpone surgeries due to lack of equipment, meaning operations are performed on time. In fact, it’s in the best interest of patients to stick to the schedule. Studies show that delayed surgeries lead to increased anxiety in patients as well as worse outcomes.

3. Smooth Operations

It’s worth repeating: SPDs keep hospitals and ASCs running. The sterilization services that they provide are vital to ensuring that there are always clean instruments ready to go, thus reducing equipment-related delays.

4. Improved Overall Quality of Patient Care

When instruments and devices are sterile and ready to use, patients benefit from both increased safety as well as timely and focused care from medical staff. The quality of care received can also have a direct impact on outcomes, which is why providing excellent patient experiences is top priority.

Is Your Healthcare Facility on The Right Track?

Steam sterilization technology plays a major role in sterile processing and providing comprehensive patient care. Ready to put your ASC sterilization setup to the test? Take our free self-assessment to see whether your current setup sufficiently meets your needs.

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