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Hear Ye, Hear Me! On Education and Competition in Sterile Processing

“May I have your attention, please? May I have your attention, please? Will the real sterile processing educators please stand up?”

Anyone choosing to read an article with the words “sterile processing” and “education” in the title is likely already convinced of the tremendous value education has on career growth, best practice, and patient safety for medical device reprocessors. But there may be some disagreements or misunderstandings around the impact that industry competition has on education itself. Is there such a thing as pure education? Is competition, by definition, a bad thing? How should these answers impact how and from whom you glean your sterile processing education resources? We will take a look at these questions and provide an honest vision for balancing education and competition below.

Is education competitive? Yes
Human beings, and sterile processing professionals in particular, have a limited amount of time on their hands. There are only so many hours in the day, most of which are spent running up and down stairs to deliver stat turnovers to OR 6 or pressing yourself to get through that last case cart in decontamination before you can go on your final 15-minute break. Because there is limited time available to us, there are also limited options for what we are able to give our valuable attention to, including educational opportunities. We physically can’t watch every webinar that releases. We can’t listen to every podcast that comes out, or read every article that is published. Because we only have so much attention to give, only certain educational content will ever get it.

So yes, in a very real and straightforward sense, sterile processing education is and must be competitive. If a piece of sterile processing education is not actively competing for attention, it’s like a tree falling in a forest with no one around to hear it. Did it actually make a sound? Did the webinar that no one watched actually make a difference? Anyone involved in creating high-quality education — whether that is a vendor, department educator, or conference presenter — has a fundamental desire for an audience to want to learn from it. But because each person in the audience has limited attention to give, and there are other educational options out there, education developers must be intentionally competitive to build that audience. The better the education is, the more competitive you should be in trying to promote it.

Is competitive education bad? No
Competition, like politics, can have negative connotations associated with it, but there are many good things that come out of competition. Competition drives innovation and improvement. Competition forces creators to focus on quality and consumer feedback. Imagine if there were only one place in the entire industry you could go to find educational resources, a virtual monopoly on sterile processing content. What incentive would that monopoly have to create new, fun, engaging education for their audience? If you’re the only game in town, there’s not a lot driving you to listen or respond to audience feedback or market forces. Or to change the analogy, if your small town finally gets a second Tex-Mex restaurant, now both restaurants have a vested interest in creating the best experience, service, and food they possibly can. Competition makes both restaurants better, which means better overall experiences for every customer involved.

When people in sterile processing think about the downside to competitive education in our industry, they are thinking about competing companies warring against one another with weaponized PowerPoint presentations and targeted advertisements. This does happen, probably more than most people realize. Rather than viewing this as something to bemoan, I believe it is much more productive to teach frontline technicians and department leaders how to recognize and categorize it. We’re not going to stop it, because any vendor worth their salt wants to put the most helpful facts and arguments that would benefit their product or service front and center. It’s human nature and good business sense. But critical-thinking sterile processing professionals can be trusted to untangle the motives and still walk away with valuable insight from even the most competitive of educational content.

To this point, I do not believe there even is such a thing as pure education available to industry users. Every piece of education is built by someone who has assumptions, preferences, and opinions on the sterile processing industry (and their paycheck is paid by someone who has their own assumptions, preferences, and opinions). To quote Ronald Reagan, “Facts are stupid things,” and most any sterile processing fact can be used to argue both sides of the coin when positioned this way or that. Adding information can impact the key takeaways of a presentation just as well as leaving out other critical information. You do this, I do this, industry guidelines, textbooks, and conference presentations do this. Knowing and being honest with ourselves that it happens is half the battle.

How should this impact your pursuit of sterile processing education?
To paraphrase the late philosopher Francis Schaeffer, in light of the competitive realities of attention and education in sterile processing, “How then shall we educate?” Here are three important takeaways worth considering:

  • Because every piece of education is uniquely created by unique individuals with unique perspectives, be willing to consume education on topics you’ve heard before from different speakers and vendors. One webinar on water quality in SPD does not exhaust the topic. In fact, it doesn’t even scratch the surface. And it definitely doesn’t illuminate the many (helpful) disagreements present in the water quality niche of our industry. Use the competitive nature of education in your favor to grasp a deeper, more thorough understanding of important industry topics from various sources.
  • Find and follow educators who are pushing the boundaries on industry topics. While there is nothing wrong with Sterile Processing 101 content and education, some of the most engaging information out there today is coming from educators who are drilling deep down into their content categories to identify new themes and discussion points previously unavailable to users.
  • Walk into education and industry information with your eyes wide open. There is no such thing as neutrality, whether education is CE approved or overtly vendor focused. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t tremendous value in what is being said. Learning how vendors and educators see where their information and solutions fit into the sterile processing world is hugely helpful in building out your own personal views and opinions on the industry at large. Take everything with a grain of salt, and glean what you can from it for future study.

P.S. If educators want your attention, make them work for it. We’ll all be the better for it.

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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