7 Habits of Highly Effective Sterile Processing Departments
What are the building blocks for sterile processing greatness? Is there a formula for taking your team from mediocre to magnificent? Is there anything you can start doing today or stop doing tomorrow that will nudge the needle in the right direction?
While there are no silver bullets to SPD success, there are seven particular habits that can serve as the foundation for many highly effective sterile processing departments across the country. As with all habits, these behaviors and commitments did not mature overnight, and some were years in the making. Even so, implementing and encouraging these seven habits among your team can and will change the qualitative direction of your department regardless of how far along the journey you are today.
Habit #1: Commitment to humility
Of all the virtues a person, department, or industry could have, humility is one of the most important and formative of them all. While the idea of humility may seem abstract and philosophical, the outworking of this commitment to humility often marks the difference between teams who grow and teams who sink down into an echo chamber of their own making. To be a humble SPD means that your leaders and frontline technicians understand and admit they have not arrived at some endpoint of sterile processing knowledge and progress. They recognize that they do not have it all figured out. They agree among themselves and across their teams that different perspectives and insights are a positive thing, and that the status quo of their departments should be continually questioned, updated, and improved. Highly effective SPD teams leverage their humility to learn from any person or industry that can improve their mission for patient safety.
Habit #2: Commitment to high-quality hires
If you look closely at sterile processing departments that have greatly excelled, you will see an unrelenting commitment to finding and hiring the best talent available. Industry insiders know how difficult this can be due to the realities of market forces, noncompetitive wages, and limited recruiting support from their healthcare facilities. In this context, there is a great temptation on the part of department leaders to settle for a warm body and pair of scrubs to plug a hole, choosing from the limited pool of candidates who happen to land in front of them. Highly effective departments and their leaders go above, beyond, and often outside of these traditional recruiting pools to ensure that they identify and hire the best possible candidates they can find.
Habit #3: Commitment to necessary fires
In addition to hiring well, first-class sterile processing departments also have an unapologetic commitment to taking necessary steps toward helping folks who fail to meet the mission, vision, or values for their respective teams find a better fit for themselves. In other words, they are willing to fire team members who truly deserve it. While this may sound harsh, and should definitely be a last resort, failing to send nonperformers packing can have a real detrimental impact on the quality, morale, and efficiency of entire teams. The reason the weakest link is a cliché is because it’s true, and these weak links can strand otherwise successful teams in a desert of mediocrity for years if not addressed.
Habit #4: Commitment to ongoing education
Regardless of where an SPD team begins, without a commitment to the ongoing education of their frontline technicians, lasting improvement will always be out of reach. This is true because we have found ourselves in an industry that is constantly changing, both in regards to technology and regulation. What was best practice a decade ago is often not the best practice today. Cleaning validations for certain equipment can and do change. New research gives insight to our processes and should therefore impact our day-to-day practice. If ongoing education is not a cornerstone of a department culture, it is impossible for teams to become and remain effective in this industry.
Habit #5: Commitment to discipline
In many departments today, discipline is often seen as a dirty word. It can have negative connotations of punishment, fear, or a tyrannical boss. However, when discipline is understood positively as training oneself to do something in a controlled and habitual way, a new idea emerges—one that often separates run-of-the-mill sterile processing teams and those who rise to the top echelon of our industry. These top departments create a palpable culture of self-discipline among their teams where compliance, quality, and productivity are monitored and owned by the technicians themselves. Supervisors and managers, while still present, are not the driving force behind making sure everyone is where they need to be and doing what they need to be doing. Instead, highly effective departments are filled with individuals who take their job integrity seriously, performing at the same high levels regardless of who may or may not be looking over their shoulders.
Habit #6: Commitment to customer service
Even though the majority of sterile processing teams don’t see their customers face to face on a regular basis, an excellent customer service program is still a defining feature of highly effective sterile processing departments. Teams that integrate customer service training and customer feedback into their onboarding and recognition programs quickly outpace their industry peers in gaining the trust and support of their operating room counterparts and surgical customers. Simple steps such as creating a standardized phone script and using guidelines for SPD and OR email communication send strong signals across the perioperative divide that a sterile processing team is serious about providing functional, sterile, and available instrumentation—every surgery, every time.
Habit #7: Commitment to innovation
The final habit of highly effective sterile processing teams is a commitment to innovation. One of the fundamental reasons these teams are more effective than others is that they are willing to experiment with change and test the waters of progress, becoming early adopters of the newest technologies, products, or services in this industry. Their supervisors, managers, and directors are willing to be the first departments in their state or country to try that new widget if it means greater efficiency and more consistent quality for their patients. Rather than simply duplicating a policy or practice that worked at a previous facility, these departments ask what might work best here, in this context, with these people and this workflow. This commitment to creative innovation and rejection of cookie cutter solutions catapults these teams to the forefront of an industry that can easily fall into the safe stagnation of the status quo.
If these habits do not define your current department and culture, do not despair. Each of these aspects of highly effective sterile processing teams is accessible and within reach. You do not need a college degree or fancy title to take your crew to the next level of patient safety and reprocessing excellence. All you need to do is take the first step and want this. Then take the next step and start doing it. Then do it again tomorrow, and again the next day, and the next.
At some point you will wake up and realize this is not just a story about someone else’s team—it is your story, your habits, and your highly effective sterile processing department. Only then can you break Habit #1 and take a little pride.
Until then, keep fighting dirty!
Feature articles exclusively for Ultra Clean Systems by Weston “Hank” Balch, BS, MDiv, CRCST, CER, CIS, CHL
Weapon of Mass Microbial Destruction * Professional Clean Freak * Podcast Host * Safety Addict * CS/SPD Consultant
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