AAMI News November 2017

Leaders Seek to Elevate Sterile Processing from Job to Profession

Sterile Processing Department
Responsibility for cleaning and sterilizing medical instruments rests with professionals who must master complex skills.

A sterile processing department (SPD) is all that stands between patients and dirty medical instruments during a procedure. But often the contribution the SPD makes to quality healthcare delivery is invisible—or worse, dismissed—according to leaders in the field who participated in a roundtable discussion published in the September/October 2017 issue of BI&T.

“Some places in Europe have elevated this position to that of a scientist, ensuring that it’s a highly regarded profession. Whereas, in the U.S., it’s not the same,” said Cheryl Kwinn, a senior human factors engineer at Farm Design in Hollis, NH.

Despite efforts to increase the field’s stature, many in healthcare still operate as if SPD stands for “stupid people downstairs,” according to Seth Hendee, a central sterile supply department educator at the University of Vermont Medical Center in Colchester, VT.

“We still have people, as much as we have tried, who think that they are doing a jumped-up dishwashing duty,” Hendee said.

But decontaminating, disinfecting, and sterilizing medical instruments and devices is, to put it mildly, far more complicated and impactful than washing dishes—requiring strict adherence to the manufacturer’s instructions for use (IFU)—and mistakes can lead to patient harm.

“In 2011, there were 39 different endoscopes, each with its own unique IFU when reprocessing,” Kwinn said. “Trying to manage the nuances and complexity of each unique device is too much burden to put on a person.”


Many in the field look to certification as the answer.

“What makes the certification process really legitimate is that they make you take a deeper dive into the learning behind just following the steps,” Hendee said. “That gives [SPD staff] a better understanding about what they are doing, which in turn helps them make better decisions when they have failures.”

Certification also changes the way people look at processing technicians—including the way they lookat themselves.

“It’s empowering when you can sit down and can pass that exam, especially when you get those questions about microbiology right,” Hendee said. “These things add up to people feeling like they are not [stupid] because they passed the exam. They’re smart. They’re important.”


The average salary for sterile processing technicians across the U.S. is just over $34,000, according to Glassdoor.

Janet Prust, director of standards and scientific affairs at 3M in Saint Paul, MN, sees another way to go about elevating the profession.

“We are really focused on the certification route, hoping that we get to that worth piece of it, but maybe there is a different approach,” she said. “We need to attract people to the profession—people who are willing to put in that effort to succeed and be exemplary in what they do.”

However, attracting this type of talent requires money.

“We are expecting a lot out of people who really don’t make very much money; it’s really important that we reward them appropriately and that the healthcare system can support the worth of that job,” Prust said. Because at the end of the day, the value placed on SPD professionals is directly tied to patient safety.