Education & Training: The Case for Sterile Processing Certification


What an official association designation can do for your SPD.

Every October, National Sterile Processing Week takes place (Oct. 8 to 14 this year). It’s an opportunity for those who care for surgical instruments and equipment to be recognized for the critical work they do for our patients. It’s also the perfect opportunity to talk about the sterile processing certification process, and how it enhances this important work.

Specific skills, specialized training

Caring for our patients through the work of sterile processing of surgical instruments encompasses a specific and unique set of skills. Those who do this work must be carefully trained and educated to provide the safest patient experience, pass accreditation surveys with flying colors and be conscientious of the surgical instrument operating budget. Sterile processing technicians are on the frontlines of infection prevention, and appropriate training helps them to do their part in preventing surgical site infections. One effective way to foster the training and education of your SPD professionals is to encourage them to pursue certification through a nationally recognized association. The benefits of certification for all workers who clean and sterilize surgical instruments is undeniable.

Most hospitals (and five states) require their SPD technicians to acquire certification at an early point in their career. Certification through one of the established organizations is critical because it demonstrates a level of dedication from the technician, and proves an expertise that goes beyond the hands-on training they receive on the job. Dedication and expertise are traits that patients expect throughout the entire spectrum of their care.

There are two primary certification bodies in America: the Healthcare Sterile Processing Association (HSPA, which recently changed its name from IAHCSMM), and the Certification Board for Sterile Processing and Distribution (CBSPD). Both organizations offer basic certifications, and also a range of certifications that address specific areas of instrument reprocessing. Both organizations require a period of study with textbooks, a proctored examination and continuing education to maintain certification. Both organizations are recognized nationally and certification from either organization can be considered valid.

Didactic and hands-on education

Certification in sterile processing first requires bookwork. Those seeking the CSPT title must study a textbook published by the certification body. Sterile processing textbooks are carefully researched, peer-reviewed and updated on a regular cadence. The resources used in writing them include national regulations from government organizations such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Department of Transportation, and standards organizations such as the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation. Students might study the text on their own or be guided by an educator. In many parts of the country, there are certification schools that provide lectures on the text and hands-on experience with surgical instruments. Sterile processing courses can also be found at many technical colleges. The information found in sterile processing textbooks is detailed and technical, so students have a much greater chance of success on the exam if they receive knowledgeable guidance while studying.

It’s not enough to know what button to push on the sterilizer — to be most effective, the technician must know what the sterilization parameters mean, and why instruments are sterilized in the way that they are.

Orientation and hands-on training for processing of surgical instruments last several weeks or months, depending on the variety of work performed by technicians. The texts provided in preparation for certification enhance the technician’s training. It’s not enough to know what button to push on the sterilizer — to be most effective, the technician must know what the sterilization parameters mean, and why instruments are sterilized in the way that they are.

When the student feels ready, or when their course of study has been completed, they will sit for an exam at a national testing center. The tests are rigorous, and the chance of success is greatly improved through careful study. Generally, applicants may attempt the test multiple times if they don’t pass on the first go. However, tests are updated on a regular basis to assure that applicants are tested on the most current information, and that the test is relevant to the work they will be doing. In addition to the written exam, HSPA also requires hands-on experience (currently 400 hours) in order to become certified. This experience may come as on-the-job training, or through an externship program coordinated by a school.

After passing the exam, certified sterile processing professionals are required to complete accredited continuing education (CE) to maintain their certification. Both certification organizations have accreditation protocols for continuing education, and some companies offer approved CE courses online. Certified professionals may also gain CE credits by attending regional or national conferences. Sterile processing technicians might receive great training, but without staying updated on the theory behind the work, they are less able to speak to the importance of their processes and how their work directly impacts the quality of life of every patient.

Unusual events, such as a request for early release of sterilized implants, are not as easily addressed. Continuing education returns the technician to the patient-centered occupation of sterile processing, and balances it with the necessities of learning the mechanics to perform day-to-day duties.

Best educated technicians = best safety outcomes

Sterile processing technicians are recognized by regulatory agencies and accreditation organizations as critical components of every patient’s care. The technicians who perform this important work be as well-educated as they are well-trained in cleaning and sterilizing instruments. The initial and ongoing study that goes into certification of sterile processing staff is an essential to providing the best care of every patient in every healthcare setting.

The ultimate goal of education, as demonstrated by certification, is patient safety. Well-educated sterile processing professionals know the regulations and standards for cleaning and sterilizing instruments for surgeries and clinical procedures. A staff knowledgeable in cleaning and sterilization leads unequivocally to the best outcomes for patients. OSM

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