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Competency Saves Lives: Why the Hard Work of SPD Competency Paperwork Can’t be Ignored

Updated: Jul 12, 2023

In recent months, I’ve seen multiple videos of similar horrifying events pop up on my social media newsfeeds. The consistent theme runs like this: surveillance videos of parking lots, food courts, or bus stations; an infant/toddler begins choking and stops breathing; and a frantic parent hands the distressed child off to a police officer or fire fighter who performs life-saving treatment to rescue them. As a father of two small children myself, it is impossible to watch these videos without powerful emotions of fear, helplessness, and an unmitigated sense of relief as it all ends well.

Palm Beach Police Department is credited for saving a choking infant. The department undergoes lifesaving training on a regular basis.

When it comes to emergencies like this, we all instinctively know that someone who has been trained to handle the situation is the best person to rely on for help. If you needed CPR, for instance, who would you want to perform it? A paramedic who was recertified last week, or someone who hasn’t had the training for 10 years? Of course, we’d want the person with the most relevant knowledge and the freshest exposure to the live-saving content. In our time of need, we all want someone who is competent. Knowing this, why do so many of us compromise our trust in documented, structured competence when it comes to our own sterile processing departments?

Paying the price of paperwork If we were to distill down all the reasons that sterile processing leaders might take shortcuts regarding competency checks in their departments, the primary excuse would almost always be the excessive time it takes to complete competency paperwork on every frontline technician. The typical shortcut around this massive time investment is to either perform competency checks less often (every other year, for instance) or water down competency checklists into a general overview of a department workflow that can be completed in a quick one-on-one interview.

The problem is neither of these options does justice to the true life-saving nature of a sterile processor’s job duties. Facilities and leaders who are willing to short-circuit employee competency checks are showing that they actually do not believe the work being done in the SPD is all that complex or even important. Actions speak louder than words, and inconsistent or shallow competency checks in sterile processing say we aren’t really serious about patient safety in our departments. If we really believe that competence saves lives, no amount of paperwork will stand in our way of making sure these check-offs are happening for every member of our team. If we really believe that competence saves lives, we will gladly pay the price of paperwork to ensure our patients receive the best instrument reprocessing service possible.

Calling technology’s bluff Some of you may already be nodding your heads in agreement and comforting yourselves in the fact that your SPD department completes annual competencies on all employees through some type of online module, webinar, and digital assessment. There is, indeed, tremendous time savings that can be gained by leveraging technology to support your competency reviews. Additionally, much of the information shared can be standardized through digital delivery systems and integrated into the regular life of the department, instead of a singular event that occurs once a year.

However, if we are honest with ourselves and our department leaders, we have all completed online competency modules with eyes glazed over and no real competency mastery by the end of it. Yes, we were exposed to the content, but it was like rain on a tin roof—plenty of noise, but dry by morning. The value proposition of online or digital competency tools cannot and should not ultimately replace the role of critical thinking educators and leaders who can dig down to the root of a technician’s knowledge to see how deep it really goes. Are online modules a helpful tool? Absolutely. The entire tool chest? Not even close.

Certifications don’t save lives This final point here is both personal and complex. Personal because many professionals in the sterile processing industry have gone through tremendous lengths to become certified in the field, including paying anywhere from a few hundred to thousands of dollars to gain the credentials necessary for their particular roles. Complex because many of these distinctions are not as clear cut as some of us would like.

Here’s what I mean. Whether you have CRCST or CSPDT behind your name is ultimately irrelevant when it comes to the reality of your competence in the field of sterile processing. Credentials without real knowledge are hollow letters with no meaning. It is completely possible to read textbooks and pass tests without ever allowing the content to impact your professional abilities, commitments, and perspectives. When it comes to protecting patients from surgical harm, there is nothing inherently magical about a few extra letters printed on your badge.

What really matters, and what really saves lives, is the decision of sterile processing professionals to take the wealth of information and best practices they’ve learned in certification training and continuing education and apply it to the way they do their jobs every day. When department leaders and facilities commit to doing the hard work of developing real competence across their teams, regularly review and refresh this knowledge, and wisely leverage technology as a means to supplement competence documentation, then technicians can become equipped to handle the truly dangerous and live-saving job in front of them. If competence saves lives, incompetence can lose it. And that’s an option no parent and no SPD professional could live with.

Decide today: don’t compromise. Document competence.

What say you?

Hank Balch

Beyond Clean © 2022

Hank Balch is the Founder and President of Beyond Clean. You can follow him on Instagram @WeFightDirty, and find his Fighting Dirty video series on YouTube. He is an international thought leader and has written over 150 other Sterile Processing articles and commentary, along with published articles in Becker's Hospital Review, Infection Control Today, AAMI News, AAMI BI&T Journal, Outpatient Surgery Magazine, and contributions to Healthcare Purchasing News. Hank's CS/SPD team in Louisville, KY was named the "2016 CS/SPD Department of the Year" by HPN. He has also served as the founding President of the South Texas Association of Sterile Processing Services and President of the Kentuckiana IAHCSMM Chapter, in additional to being nominated for the 2017 President-Elect & 2018 President-Elect of the International Association of Healthcare Central Service Materiel Management.


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