top of page

So you failed your Sterile Processing certification exam?

Well, I have good news and bad news. The good news is, you're not alone. Nearly 40% of Sterile Processing exam takers in the US walk away from the test with a failure notice.

And the bad news? Well, if you're reading this article, that means you're probably one of them. If not, you may be an educator, manager, co-worker, or friend who is trying to help someone cope with the gut-punch they just received after their exam.

Since I know the last thing you want to do after studying for months is read ANOTHER long article, I'll cut to the chase on this one.

#1 Failure does not define you.

Yep, I went with the cliché. But seriously, I get it. This exam was personal for you. It's your job after all. Everyone in your department probably knew you were going to take it, and everyone will be asking how you did when you get back to work. Unless you kept it all a big secret, folks will know that you didn't pass right off the bat.

So what? Those people in the testing center don't know you. They don't know how hard you worked, how long you studied, or how many other responsibilities you had at home that made it harder for you to study. And since they don't know you, they can't define who you are. This is one test, and one grade. You are defined by so much more.

#2 Patients don't care if you're certified.

Take a step back for a second and think about this -- no patient ultimately cares if you have credentials. No one goes into their appendectomy saying to themselves, "Man, I hope that SPD tech is good at multiple choice!" At the end of the day, they just want a safe surgery. They want to come in and go back home in one piece, no complications, no issues.

So even if you bombed the exam this first time around, you've still got moms, dads, sisters, brothers, grandmas, grandpas, and babies who are counting on you to apply what you do know and keep them safe. A few letters on your name badge won't make you a superhero. Knowing your job and doing your job safely -- every instrument, every time. That's what Sterile Processing heroes are made of.

#3 Certification is not the end goal.

Even though certification is a great goal to have, just keep in mind that it's not an end goal. You don't arrive at the top of any mountain of knowledge just because you get a certificate in the mail. Even though it is an accomplishment to celebrate, think about it as more of a pit stop on the long road of career growth. These industry certifications are entry level, baseline certifications. They determine the bare minimum knowledge someone should have to be in our field. So that means that the majority of information, education, and insight into Sterile Processing isn't covered by any certification textbook. That's knowledge that you may already have and should continue building every day -- regardless of when you eventually pass your exam.


And on that point, I think you can and will pass. And WHEN you do, I want to hear from you. Email me at and let me know. I want to celebrate with you!

Now for some real quick practical tips:

  • The object is not just to PASS, it is to understand: So you shouldn't be looking for the least possible you can do to get a passing score. I see folks all the time who say, "I just studied flash cards, and I passed." This idea is missing the entire point. You want to understand the WHY behind these concepts, not just enough to pass by the skin of your teeth.

  • Don't forget to study AAMI ST79:2017: I hear of many folks who fail who never once took a look at the AAMI ST79 document prior to their exam. So much of what is condensed in your certification materials comes out of and is instructed by the AAMI standards that you should study these documents just as much as you do your actual textbook.

  • These tests are about textbooks, not job experience: Perhaps the most common reason I hear about people failing is that they expected the exam to be about their SPD job experience. But when they sit down to take the actual test, they realize it's not about their department or their processes -- it's about regulations, microbiology, different sterilization methods, chemicals, etc. This can be a shocking realization, but it shouldn't be surprising. These certifications are laying a broad foundation, and so the information is generalized by design. You can't just walk into the exam with 20 years experience and expect to pass.

  • Study in a way that works for you, not your best friend: Finally, don't fall into the trap of studying the way other people study. Just because it works for them, does not mean it will work for you. Some people study great in groups, I get annoyed by all the talking so I could never focus like that. Other folks are more visual learners, so they may need an instructor and videos to supplement their textbook. Others may need to read chapters multiple times to retain knowledge, and talk through the topics with their coworkers. Don't go along with the flow if you know it's not going to help you on test day.

For more education on the Sterile Processing industry, tune into our weekly Beyond Clean podcast, and follow us on Facebook.

Until next time, keep #FightingDirty.

Hank Balch

Beyond Clean © 2020

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.


bottom of page