How to Handle the Post-Pandemic Challenges of the Sterile Processing Department

How to Handle the Post-Pandemic Challenges of the Sterile Processing Department

Like all hospital departments, the sterile processing department (SPD) was forced to adapt to the obstacles presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. While the pandemic isn’t entirely in our rear view, surgical volume is rising once more and COVID cases are declining thanks to vaccinations. But, the SPD continues to face challenges like workforce shortages, high turnover rates, insufficient sterilization, and instrument loss. Fortunately, there are several solutions hospital leaders can adopt to save money, reduce the potential of SSIs, and improve overall efficiency in the SPD.

The Serious Challenges of Today’s SPD


It’s impossible to understate the effect that the pandemic has had on the SPD. Some SPD techs have been diverted from cleaning their typical instrument sets to sterilizing all kinds of equipment and gear. They’ve also had to clean a high volume of equipment such as code carts — up to 35-50 carts per day, compared to pre-pandemic levels of 5-8 per day. As we slowly adjust to a post-pandemic reality, today’s SPD continues to face these serious challenges:

  1. Staffing shortages. Healthcare systems are hard-pressed to find specialized SPD techs with adequate training and experience. High rates of turnover can affect a hospital’s ability to regularly meet surgical demand and prevent the incidence of SSIs. 
  2. Instrument complexity. Equipment for minimally invasive procedures is harder to clean, and there’s more of it now than ever before. For example, an SPD tech’s visual inspection for damage and biofilm is more likely to fail without the assistance of magnification and enhanced light.
  3. Instrument load. SPD techs may feel the burden to process instruments faster, resulting in mistakes being made that impact the OR and potentially the patient. 

Together, these challenges create a major drain on hospital finances. To combat staffing shortages, hospitals are increasingly turning to agencies to fill vacant roles with travelers. The expense of agency labor can be exorbitant, costing hospitals $50-85 per hour, per traveler. In addition, poor instrument management takes its toll. When instruments are damaged or inventory is improperly kept, hospitals may overspend to acquire new instruments when the implementation of maintenance protocols would have been far more cost-effective. 

Finally, improper sterilization of instruments, especially complex devices that are harder to clean, increases the risk of SSIs. The healthcare industry spends $9.8 billion treating the top HAIs every year, with one-third of HAIs coming from SSIs. This is excessive, given that approximately 60% of SSIs are preventable, according to the American College of Surgeons and the Surgical Infection Society. 

How can hospitals respond to these issues?

Strategic Management of the SPD and Instrument Inventory

To cut costs and improve both safety and efficiency, hospitals can choose to invest in their SPDs by hiring oversight and gaining a more comprehensive picture of what can be done to improve their processes. As SPD performance improves, in-house hiring and training can become more frequent, and the need for travelers will decrease — alongside the costs spent on labor. 

To help hospitals save money and improve outcomes, SpecialtyCare provides consulting, project management, and staff including educators, technicians, and long or short-term management to support your SPD’s performance. In addition, we can place complex instrument specialists in your SPD who are trained in handling and sterilizing minimally invasive instruments, including orthopedics and flexible endoscopes. We also offer inventory management services to eliminate waste and ensure that you have the instruments you need, when you need them. 

Get an Expert Assessment and Support for Your SPD

Not exactly sure what would serve you best? We conduct SPD assessments as needed, evaluating everything from staff competency to adherence to best practices. Contact our team today to find out more about how we can help alleviate the sterile processing burden at your hospital in the emerging post-pandemic season. We would love to tell you more about our training programs, staff placement strategies, and inventory management services.