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Passionate Data & Finding Real Strength in Numbers: A 2019 IAHCSMM Conference Reflection

It was an education session like many others. I sat there with notebook in hand, nodding along with the important points, and trying to catch all the slides while feverishly writing down various statistics that came up. Little did I know this session would turn out to be one of the most pivotal points of my 2019 IAHCSMM Conference & Expo experience.

Like many other industry presentations you may have heard, this one piled on the data. Years of research in hospitals all over the country and even the globe had been brought together to show the current state of surgical instrumentation, and the findings were grim. More than half of all surgical instruments examined in our hospitals were rated “not okay” to use.

The presentation continued, more data was given on other related topics, a number of charts and graphs flashed upon the big screen, and that was it. The presentation was completed and another session was in the books.

Not just about the numbers
Except that’s not how it really ended. You see, a room full of sterile processing professionals had just been given some tremendously shocking and valuable data that hardly any of them had ever seen before. We had been told that approximately half of surgical instruments in use today are not really safe for patient use. Although the presenter may not have realized it at the time, there was massive embryonic power present in that one data point.

Thankfully, we did not have to wait long to see that power on full display because something happened that always happens when real data is given to a group of sterile processing professionals—it got mixed with passion.

A gentleman in the audience stood up and asked the first question: “If this data is true, we cannot simply leave this room the same way we came in. If this is true, what are we, as an industry, going to do about? If half of all our surgical instruments are not okay to use, that’s not okay!”

As other questions and comments began bubbling over, it became unmistakably clear that something real, tangible, and effectual had just happened in a random room in Anaheim, California, during a dry lecture on surgical instrument statistics—we had come face-to-face with and experienced passionate data. Department managers, frontline technicians, scientists, and hospital administrators were all together swept up in a conversation that was no longer just about numbers and trends, but had become a conversation about real patients, industry values, and personal responsibilities.

In short, we had discovered the real strength in numbers. It wasn’t some abstract conference attendance total or growing membership roll. It wasn’t even how many other people knew our names or how many certifications we each held. The real strength in numbers was when numbers, data, and statistics were combined with people who care about the future of their industry. Data alone changes nothing. Passionate people with the right data can change the world.

The real conference value: Excellence is a team sport
That is why conferences like the IAHCSMM Conference & Expo matter. Currently, there is no larger gathering in the United States of passionate sterile processing professionals than this annual meeting. Because of this, there are few greater opportunities to see data mix with passion in a way that gives our industry the oomph it needs to make real, positive change.

Conferences like this remind us that sterile processing excellence is a team sport.

True, there are some departments and leaders out there who have locked their department doors from the inside and given everything they have to ensure their own SPD house is order, without a lot of thought to the hospital across the street. In one sense, I understand this. It’s hard and stressful enough to bear the burden of your own processing challenges, not to mention thinking about everyone else’s around you. Some of us have lived so long in this kind of survivor mode that we’ve forgotten there are colleagues with us who feel just as burnt out, just as alone, just as in need of a little encouragement and reminder to stay the course.

Even with the all complexities and diversity of our departments, there is one universal truth among SPD professionals—we get each other. That connection, that unspoken nod from two technicians removing PPE after a long night in decontam that says “we made it.” That kind of comradery matters. It is the fuel that keeps our professional engines buzzing until the next pit stop.

Simply put, we need each other, in more ways than one. And we need each other often, in groups, with time to talk, connect, learn, question, and refuel. We need SPD associations, chapters, and organizations. Whatever you want to call your rag-tag army of microbial dragon-slayers, we need it. We need to hear different ideas from different perspectives with different solutions to different problems we haven’t yet encountered, but may one day.

Sure, these conferences serve a number of other purposes, as well, such as providing continuing education units, exposing SPD professionals to new vendors and products, and engaging the broader public as surgical instrument safety advocates. But at the end of the day, the professional synergy created over a cup of coffee, a walk through an expo hall, and a presentation on real, meaning surgical data where the power, beauty, and fundamental importance of sterile processing conferences is found.

The importance of your professional peers, joined together in a commitment to grow, improve, and expand your industry knowledge on behalf of your patients is nothing short of heroic. Although there may be nothing overtly glorious about 800 folks on a Tuesday morning talking about laparoscopic care and handling, beneath the surface something much bigger and much more epic is going on.

Grandmothers are being protected from the possibility of surgical burns from cracked insulation. Sunday school teachers are being saved from months of painful recovery from an unnecessary surgical site infection caused by residual bioburden in a Maryland Dissector. A frightened child is being given a chance to have his or her appendix removed an hour sooner because of the processing techniques learned by a CS technician at that meeting.

Every single thing we learn about how to do CS better has a ripple effect far beyond what we see today. But these best practices must be heard. These presentations must be seen. These encouraging conversations to never give up the quality fight must be had. And I can think of no better context for this kind of industry-centered information and encouragement exchange than sterile processing conferences. While you may be good at what you do as an individual, there is no debating that we, as a sterile processing industry, are stronger together.

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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