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Why Not Work When You Want? How to Totally Change the Way We Schedule Sterile Processing Technicians

In 2019, there’s no longer any (good) reason for why we are still making staffing schedules the way we did in 1979. Five days a week? Says who? Twelve-hour shifts? Why not? The sterile processing industry is primed for a complete disruption in how we handle staffing our departments and now the technology exists to make it a reality. First, let’s take a look at the problem, then a few of the results, and finally a sneak peek at a completely new way of doing things.

Permanently understaffed and overworked
With unending pressures from hospital administrators and tightening productivity standards across the country, many sterile processing teams are feeling the squeeze of rising surgical volume and shrinking staff to support it. For department supervisors and managers, this creates tremendous difficultly just doing simple tasks, such as creating a staffing schedule for the following week, juggling vacation requests, and handing unexpected call-ins. In some departments, it’s not uncommon for multiple vacation requests to get denied, or for mandatory overtime to be instated when productivity can’t catch up with ongoing surgery schedules.

The impact of these challenges on frontline technicians can hardly be overstated. How would you feel if you never requested vacation, only to get your first request in two years denied because your department is short staffed? Where is the reasonableness in that? Many technicians experience regular frustration over how often they have to work weekends, what shift they are assigned, how many times they are asked to work late at the last minute, and the overall lack of flexibility shown for how their time off is managed. This is not an issue in every department, but for many others it is the unfortunate reality in which they live.

What happens when we fail at scheduling well?
We see the results of these staffing and scheduling challenges all over the place. Some technicians weigh the pros and cons of a sterile processing career, and the frustrations around schedules push them out of the industry completely. Others will leave their current hospital and take a job across town for the sole reason of an easier schedule or a preferred shift. Many who remain where they are carry around a constant chip on their shoulder regarding how their department schedules are created, making themselves and often their coworkers miserable with growing negativity about their current state of affairs.

Cultural impact aside, poor staffing models also have a tremendous impact on overall production and flow of the instrumentation itself. For instance, if too few technicians are staffed during the high-volume shifts when operating room case carts are entering the decontamination area, huge bottlenecks can occur that can delay total tray processing times by hours, with ripple effects throughout the entire workflow and into next day surgery schedules. With the added pressures of high volume and existing delays, the technicians who are staffed can be tempted to cut corners or create workarounds to get as many trays through as possible, even though they wouldn’t do so under normal circumstances.

Scheduling in the 21st century SPD
What if I were to tell you there is a better way—and that there are existing technologies in use in other industries that could completely change the way we envision a sterile processing department schedule? Well, there is and there are. Combined with email and mobile applications, and using your own surgery volume data, these types of technologies could put an end to staffing frustration and replace it with productive flexibility across every shift.

Here’s what this miracle staffing schedule model would look like. Your historical surgery data is pulled, including as much information as possible regarding when the surgeries are completed, how many trays are included in the case, and your own historical production data that says the average time it takes your team to reprocess them. This will tell you that on an average Thursday (perhaps it’s your heavy neuro day), you typically require eight staff members on second shift to support an efficient reprocessing workflow of those trays. But anyone on the frontlines of sterile processing understands that not every staff member is created equal—either in terms of knowledge, training, skill, speed, or quality. We know that body counts alone won’t solve our most difficult staffing challenges; however, with your own historical production data broken down by individualteam members, the technology can calculate actual production potential of a particular group of technicians, as opposed to a less helpful average over the entire department.

So far, all we have is data that tells us when and where to put folks. That’s only half the magic. Instead of viewing our department’s staffing needs in terms of static eight-hour shifts, we can view the schedule as a blank slate with particular staffing needs that rise and fall depending on the day, and depending on the estimated or real instrument flows of our departments. Technicians can use their mobile phones or desktops to schedule themselvesinto those open production slots, whenever and wherever they’d like, in line with both their position status (full time vs. part time) and their production ability. Instead of needing to use vacation time, staff will be able to schedule around their preferences, working three 12-hour shifts before a trip, or four 10-hour stints after a long weekend. As long as the production slots are open, staff who meet the requirements can slip in with the click of a button.

What we are talking about here is happening right now and happening successfully in other industries.1The data to do this is available and the technology exists to make it happen in sterile processing. If your department feels the frustrating pinch of staffing struggles and production challenges, it may be worth throwing out your 40-year-old paper scheduling template and giving technology a chance to change your world for the better.

What say you?


  1. https://wheniwork.com

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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