Just as surgical procedures have improved and operating rooms are seeing more and more innovation, the role of sterile processing department technicians has changed. The need for greater knowledge and a better understanding of reprocessing practice has become vital to ensuring that the potential risk to any patient as a result of improperly cleaned or sterilized instruments is mitigated. Years ago, neither certification nor continuing education were needed to perform the very simple tasks performed by central supply aides. But things have changed.
Today, with the introduction of new operating room technology and robotics, it is absolutely essential for sterile processing techs to hone their skills and stay up-to-date. And changes have come to the sterile processing department as well. These days, sterile processing involves sophisticated equipment. In addition, accrediting and regulatory agencies have raised the bar when it comes to the competency expectations for those individuals who decontaminate, prepare, package, and sterilize reusable medical devices. In order to work in sterile processing, several states now require certification. A 2015 Health Alert Network newsletter published by the CDC urged healthcare facilities to conduct an assessment to ensure that surgical instrument reprocessing was being performed properly and that the manufacturers’ instructions for use were being followed. The CDC also included a number action steps. Among them was providing training and competency enhancements to all individuals who are performing reprocessing tasks. Recently, The Joint Commission published a document highlighting the accreditation survey enhancements and the new scoring revisions for issues related to high-level disinfection and sterilization. The Joint Commission cites the need for continuing education. In fact, it has dedicated a whole section in the High-Level Disinfection and Sterilization BoosterPak to the qualifications and ongoing staff training needed to help professionals remain competent when performing their tasks.
Sterile processing managers are faced with myriad challenges in the day-to-day operations of the department; providing education to technicians is an added responsibility. To complicate matters further, many departments don’t have the necessary teaching tools and, therefore, it may be difficult to educate adults successfully without understanding the basic concepts of teaching adults. We need to employ methods that ensure that we keep employees motivated and interested in the topics we are teaching. Some techniques I find very helpful when teaching adult students are based on Malcolm Knowles’s principles for adult education. Since adults learn in different ways, these are some important elements we must incorporate when teaching:
- People are more likely to take an interest in learning if they are made aware of why they need to know something. Sterile processing tasks are repetitious, laborious, and time-consuming. Performing these tasks for long periods of time may become overwhelming for a new technician who does not understand the reasons why there is a specific process that must be followed. However, if they know why something is done in a particular way, they are less likely to take shortcuts but will instead ensure that the process is followed exactly according to the protocol.
- Choose the best method of instruction for your audience. Not everyone learns the same way. Some learn by observing, others learn by listening, others have to perform the task, and some may need a combination of the three. In order for the sterile processing trainer to be successful, it is important to take time to understand each technician’s learning style.
- Observation – Demonstrate how to do the task before letting your students do it on their own. Let them observe surgery so that they can see how the instruments are used in a surgical procedure and the potential consequences of tray errors in the OR.
- Listening – Prepare written notes before teaching the subject. Ensure that you project your voice so that everyone can hear you clearly and understand what you are saying.
- Performing – Allow the student to practice under your supervision.
- Use hands-on experience. Engaging technicians in the learning process can help keep them enthusiastic about the topic. Use different approaches. For example:
- Demonstrate how to assemble a new set or how to inspect robotic instruments.
- Use group discussions to teach staff about the AAMI ST79 standards. Have them study a section at a time; then hold group discussions about the section, allowing them to contribute what they have learned about the topic.
- Perform simple laboratory experiments. Water quality and detergent dosing may be a difficult topic to understand. The Internet offers an array of simple experiments for water quality that can be performed in the sterile processing department classroom. For example, try a water pH level test. It’s fun and different.
- Encourage participation by choosing and focusing on topics directly related to department tasks. The topics related to instrument reprocessing, quality, and regulatory standards can be too comprehensive for new technicians to comprehend fully. Try relating their tasks to their daily lives. For instance, when teaching about the steam sterilization process and what happens inside the chamber, use as an example what happens in a household oven when baking a cake. For hand-washing power equipment and cameras, use the example of home drills and saws (which clearly cannot go into the washing machine for cleaning).
- Make learning a positive experience. One of the greatest challenges is keeping adult learners motivated. In order to motivate students to learn, we need to create an environment in which they feel welcome to participate. When they are motivated, they are more inclined to learn. Problem-solving is an excellent technique for helping your employees to learn about relevant issues instead of memorizing lots of text. Games are also an effective tool for making learning a fun experience. For example, create a version of Jeopardy for healthcare. And don’t forget positive reinforcement! Praise your students for a job well done.
A well-trained team of sterile processing technicians is key to keeping the department functioning at peak performance. When people are educated they become knowledgeable, and with knowledge comes confidence. Confident employees are more likely to perform their jobs better, thereby increasing efficiency and decreasing errors. Make education the foundation on which you build your sterile processing success.