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The Slow Ladder Climb of Sterile Processing: Is an Advanced Degree Worth It?

Ladders are a vertical line straight from the bottom to a goal or destination; you learn the skills and keep track of your accomplishments to slowly make your way up from an entry-level position. With time you advance from team lead to supervisor, only to find that the path is blocked by the need to return to college to further your education.

A sterile processing technician can enter the industry with high school education and no formal college education. They learn the skills of the job and the responsibilities that go along with it. As they become better, they have the opportunity to advance with supervisor positions or certifications ranging from Certified Registered Central Service Technician (CRCST) to Certified Healthcare Leadership (CHL) certifications, among others. However, now hospital administrations are moving away from hiring the technicians who have worked their way up to earn and learn the ins and outs of their departments. Instead, even essential supervisory roles quickly require a college degree to qualify. 

A registered nurse degree is quickly becoming the norm across the country to reach the department’s top. This requires sterile processing technicians to return to school to pursue the higher realms of the sterile processing career ladder. Is it worth it? The insinuation is that professionalism is the result that we see in a two-year nursing degree program. There is the cost, time, and finally, the commitment to returning to college to obtain a degree in nursing. Some would ask, “Wouldn’t it be easier to get a technical degree in surgical technology instead?” The nursing program is set up to immerse students in a wide range of potential employment fields within the nursing field, of which there are many, so who is to say that the sterile processing technician would even return to the sterile processing department once the RN degree is obtained?

In the last few months, I decided to return to college to obtain my RN degree. What I learned in my first semester has left me with more questions than answers as to why registered nurses are sought after to run the sterile processing department. First, there is no mention of sterile processing in nursing school. It’s an afterthought, if anything, so the nurse recruited to sterile processing is often green or has some idea from a previous experience in an adjacent department. If hospital administration is looking for business-savvy nurses, they are searching for an RN with a BSN degree. The RN program doesn’t touch the business aspects left for the BSN program.

In your first semester of nursing, you will have significant amounts of homework, clinical, pharmacology, and learning about teamwork. You will walk away having learned the importance of deadlines; making and meeting goals; building relationships with peers; and balancing work, school, and life. You will learn to think strategically about the nursing process to place patient safety first and foremost. The nursing process is the process of assessment, diagnosis, planning, implementation, and evaluation. Everything revolves around this process, which can be applied to the work environment.

Ultimately, nurses are better equipped following nursing school to ensure that the work environment is and remains safe. What does that mean exactly? Their employees and the environment are healthy, contributing to a sense of teamwork that enables staff to focus on patient care while also growing professionally. Nurses have been trained to work with many hats and cooperate within the many different spheres of the medical ecosystem where sterile processing finds itself. We are known as the heart of the hospital, after all.

An entry-level technician may possess remarkable skills in leadership. Without the nursing process experience in the decision-making, analytical, critical thinking skills, communication, and strong interpersonal skills of working with other nurses in other departments, they are going to struggle. Every other department is run by nursing staff that are following the nursing process design and training that they learned in college. This leaves the tech individual and department as a whole more prone to growing pains as they attempt to adapt.

Is it possible to return to school to climb the career ladder? It is no longer a ladder; it is more like a spiral staircase twisting its way to the top. It is worth it to always seek career advancement and personal growth, but do it for no one other than yourself. While we would like to see the career ladder stay vertical, change is inevitable. Go with the flow rather than against the grain. The advancement of nursing management within the medical system is growing, and they speak a unique language. Sterile processing technicians are flexible and completely capable of dominating nursing school to reach the top of the sterile processing management chain.

As a sterile processing professional taking the leap into nursing, you have so much that will benefit you from your decision. As a nurse, you will have an open world of choices of the populations of patients you want to work with. You will have a higher stable salary; you can work in the hospital setting or leave to work in the public domain—from social work to school nurse, the possibilities are endless. While sterile processing always has a special place in our hearts, learning nursing does open the doors from one branch of medicine to many others. Regardless of the paths traveled, you will never forget your roots in sterile processing.

Leslie Kronstedt, BSHCA, CRCST, CHL, CIS, is the president of the Western Wisconsin Sterile Processing Professionals HSPA Chapter. Leslie found her passion in sterilization after bouncing back from a surgical site infection. Leslie holds a bachelor’s degree in healthcare business management, complemented with course work in surgical technology; a sterile processing degree; and is currently finishing her nursing associate’s degree. Working and possessing knowledge in sterile processing at one of America’s largest rural trauma facilities to the intricate world of dental clinics, Leslie has devoted her time to passing on her passion and knowledge from the workplace and education to others in her writing.

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