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A Worker, Not a Widget: Humanity in the Age of Sterile Processing Optimization

While many sterile processing departments across the globe have yet to feel the full impact of the coming digital revolution in our industry, many others are already in the thick of it. When you walk into most departments today, you are likely to hear the beep, beep of a barcode scanner tracking trays from point A to point B. You’d also probably hear the tap, tap, tap of a keyboard entering results from an automatic biological indicator reader. With each passing day, you are more and more likely to hear the low rumble of robotic carts taking completed case carts out the door and toward the operating room.

There’s no question that the technological and digital revolution is coming for those of us currently working in CS/SPD. The only question that remains is this: What will we look like when this digital optimization has come, seen, and conquered our departments?

Tapping the technological brakes
As the sterile processing industry girds itself to continue its cautious march into the 21st century, implementing everything from automatic detergent dosing devices to ultraviolet disinfection cabinets, it will become more and more important for our people to develop a clear framework for understanding the underlying impacts of technology itself. How does a tracking system change a department? What impact do automatic leak testers have on a technician’s psyche? How do online competencies change the way we train?

The reality is every one of these technological leaps forward does impact our people, and the impact goes far deeper than some measurement of pure efficiency which might be promoted by a misguided understanding of the lean theory of sterile processing. Every time technology changes the way frontline technicians do their daily work, it, by extension, changes the technicians themselves. Because of this fundamental truth, department leaders cannot afford to simply open the floodgates of technology into their departments without judicious consideration of the men and women behind the machines. We owe it to our people to tap the technological brakes every now and then to consider how to best improve our industry while not losing our humanity at the same time.

Reining in unrestrained optimization
If you read some articles floating around the internet today, you might get the idea that full department automation has already taken control of the sterile processing world. At the very least you’d get the impression that optimization and efficiency are the true north of the CS/SPD mission: the ultimate measures of excellent medical device reprocessing. The implication is that the more optimized and efficient your department becomes, the better it is. In one sense, we can all agree that inefficiency and waste is not a desirable goal for any sterile processing team. The problem arises (and has arisen in many CS/SPD departments around the globe) when our addiction to process improvement and infatuation with all things optimization chews up and spits out the very people we claim to lead.

“To mistreat the workman as a ‘piece of machinery’ is and remains a violation of his human dignity.”—Abraham Kuyper

If becoming better as a department means that our sterile processing technicians must be degraded to near automatons themselves, mere button pushers, automatic equipment unloaders, mindless box checkers, and humorless clock punchers, what have we really gained? More importantly, what have we lost? For example, it is no secret the irony we see in communication technology today, where it has never been easier to contact someone across the globe and across the street, yet we see increasingly large swaths of our populations who feel utterly isolated and alone.

While much ink (and word count) has been spilled arguing against treating hospital patients like mere numbers, bed counts, or potential reimbursements, we have yet to see much written in the way of a defense of the working men and women in sterile processing. There has not been enough support given to department leaders and frontline reprocessing staff regarding how to thoughtfully navigate the tremendous technological pressures to streamline this and automate that, while still valuing the tremendous insight, skill, and commitment of the workers themselves.

Worker-centered technology assessment questions
Here are a couple assessment questions that can help jumpstart this worker-centered conversation in your own department context.

  • What knowledge does this technology potentially take away from our SPD staff?
  • How does this product or device promote greater skill in SPD technicians?
  • Will using this technology promote department teamwork and personal pride?
  • Will there be a temptation to unreasonably trust the quality outcomes of the technology?
  • Is there potential for this technology to undermine trust between coworkers and customers?
  • How will using this technology affect the financial value of individual technicians to the organization?

As you can see, these questions are not simple questions, nor are they likely to have simple answers. But the answers will be critically important to the future of your team and our industry. These kinds of deliberations are imperative to nail down, no matter what you ultimately decide in terms of technological adoption or delay in your sterile processing department because the coming age of sterile processing optimization is already upon us. There may very well be certain technologies or certain ways to implement and support them, which are better suited and more intentionally designed to honor the dignity of the worker, instead of squash it. We need not long for the bygone days of sterilization with boiling water over fire and wood, but neither should we unwittingly tumble into the future of sterile processing with departments full of sad, soulless widgets caught up in a technological rush that couldn’t care less about them.

What say you?

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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