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How to Host a Sterile Processing Olympics: Leadership Field Guide

There are few words that instill a greater sense of epic-ness in the hearts and minds of most people than the word "Olympics." Even if you're not the kind of person who TiVos every second of Curling at the Winter Olympics, there's something undeniably exciting about watching the world's best athletes battle against each other for national pride and personal ambition. 

But what would you say if I told you that you could bring a little bit of that epic feel into your own Sterile Processing department? All the tradition, all the excitement, all the pursuit of personal excellence -- huddled over a Major Vascular Tray. Not only is it possible, but you may find that it becomes your department's favorite annual event. Let's take a look on what you'll need to make it happen and make it happen successfully . . .

The Pre-Game: Iceberg Planning

We can start with answering the question of why? SPD Olympics can do a host of things for you team: increase morale, improve inter-shift relationships, recognize high performers, form a baseline for department competencies, provide a healthy outlet for competitive spirits, and just be plain fun. Your facility HR department would probably love to hear that you're putting on an event to help with employee retention and competency levels. It's really a win-win for everyone involved. 

But just like with any large event, it's like an iceberg -- you only see a 1/10th of the picture on event day, the other 90% happens in the pre-game planning. And planning it will take. Depending on the size of your department, how many support leaders (supervisors, lead techs) you will employ to help coordinate the events, and how many days you want to budget, you will most likely want to start small the first year then build the events up with each subsequent year. 

Okay, enough intro. What do you need to do before you roll this out?

Decide on the Event Line-up

Each of your events need to be simple, reproducible, and measurable. Keep in mind that any time spent in these events will be multiplied across your entire staff, so one 2-minute event can add up to an hour very quickly. Events that can be done simultaneously can help keep the total time investment lower, if you're able to coordinate it properly. We've found that a good combination of tests, timed-events, and quality events keeps this from being a big issue. 

If you're building tests (like a decontamination competency test), try to keep it multiple choice or true/false to allow for quicker test taking and quicker grading. If it's a timed event, consider picking a task that is common in the department and can be completed quickly without errors. For quality events, choose a task that requires special attention to detail that you can keep consistent throughout the event, without giving away the answers after the first contestant finishes. Here's are a few examples to highlight what I'm talking about:

The Battery Wrap Race

This is a classic timed-event. Each contestant has five orthopedic batteries, five wrappers, five indicators, and a roll of sterilization tape. Time starts when the contestant begins the first wrap and stops when the tape is applied to the last battery.  To qualify, each battery must have an indicator placed inside and be wrapped in a manner that it could be transported to the OR. Simple, measurable, repeatable, and loads of fun for your team.

Loaner Tracking Form Competency Test

Any version of this event can work, but the basics are the same. Utilizing a department documentation form, you complete five different copies with different minor errors on each one (or one correct form if you just want to be tricky). Contestants then sit down and are timed as they try to identify any documentation errors as quickly as they can. Winners are determined by the most correct answers, and time only comes into play in the instance of a tie. These events are a great way to identify areas of strength and weakness in your department's attention to accurate documentation.

Nit-Picking Needle Holder Event

This is an example of a quality-associated event. You ask your instrument repair vendor to set aside 15 needle holders with various quality issues (cracked box-lock, chipped insider, loose ratchet, etc). After numbering each needle holder and documenting the quality issue on your answer key, you lay all 15 out on a table and call up one contestant at a time (this event is best done in private so other contestants don't gain an advantage by going later). The 5-minute clock starts when the contestant picks up the first needle holder for inspection. They have one guess per needle holder and may pass and come back if there is still time remaining at the end. The winner has the most correct answers, and time only matters in the event of a tie. 

Game Day Logistics

Depending on how you pitch this event to your team, you may want to considering requiring and/or limiting involvement of your staff in particular events. If you know Grumpy Gary isn't going to sign up on his own accord, it may be worth requiring each staff member to compete in at least 2 events. But if you know Eager Edgar would sign up for all 10 events just to get out of decontam, it'd be wise to limit maximum event sign-up to 4 or 5 events. I would encourage you to post the event sign ups a few weeks out to begin building the anticipation.

To ensure there is adequate excitement as the events begin, make sure you've been talking the Olympics up at weekly staff meetings, daily huddles, and with department postings. Think about getting your up-line leaders involved to make a special appearance at the beginning of your events. The bigger the events feel to your team, the more fun it will be for them to compete in them. As the events are completed, keep the outcomes as secret as you can to save the excitement for the closing awards ceremony. 

And the Winner is . . .

Perhaps the most important part of an SPD Olympics is the closing awards ceremony. Reserve a meeting room or auditorium outside of your department and do it up right. Get an Olympic soundtrack together (I like fun tracks like "Hail to the Chief", "Pomp and Circumstance", and "Eye of the Tiger" among others). Purchase awards for the winners in each event and grand champion or rookie-of-the-year trophies for all-around winners. Keep the awards hidden and do some type of flourish/reveal as the ceremony kicks off.

Before you begin announcing the winners, talk to your team about why each of these events is important to teamwork, quality processing, and ultimately patient safety. Highlight why you cared enough about them to invest so much time and energy into something fun and engaging for them. Then have a blast announcing the top three finishers in each category, to raucous applause and the Olympic soundtrack. You might even consider catering the event and inviting some OR leaders or physicians to join in the audience. Anything to boost the importance level of what's going on. This year we're going to invite our facility presidents to award the grand champion trophy.


Bottom-line: Have fun. The work you put in to a successful Olympics will seem overwhelming once it's over, but the dividends you'll receive will be well worth it. This is a teaching, training, laughing, confidence-building event. Make sure you take time to enjoy it with your team. 

But you should probably leave the doves at home . . . 

Hank Balch

Beyond Clean © 2019


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