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Looming Sterile Processing Staffing Crisis Requires Action Now

The world of sterile processing is in a state of change right now that I have never seen in my 20+ years in the industry. A short list of big changes occurring in our industry includes:

  • Instrumentation is becoming more and more complex.

  • Sterile processing departments are under increased scrutiny.

  • Education and certification requirements are increasing.

Of all the trends that affect the future of sterile processing, the one that worries me the most is the huge demographic shift the world is experiencing. There has been a lot of news about how the population of the world is aging. However, the extent of this issue and the effect it will have on our world may not be so apparent. After looking at the data, my conclusion is that by 2030, we will face an acute staffing crisis in all of healthcare, sterile processing included. We need to begin now in planning how we can mitigate this.


According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, by 2030, we can expect to see a big shift in the number of older people relative to the number of younger people. The UN reports that the Dependency Ratio for older adults (defined as the number of people aged 65 and over divided by the number of people ages 20-64) will shift from 14.4 dependents per 100 non-dependents to 20.5. In other words, we will have 6 more people heading into retirement for every 100 people of working age. I think the term “dependent” is not necessarily appropriate because many people are still productive after the age of 65. I have accepted that I will definitely have to work past 65. However, since older people require more health care than any other age group, that means we will have more people using health care and fewer people delivering it.

Some have already begun to recognize this trend will lead to a shortage of doctors and nurses, but it is largely unpublicized that all other fields in health care will face the same issue. Combine this demographic shift with the increasing complexity of medical instrumentation and the increasing educational/certification requirements for sterile processing technicians, and it is no exaggeration to say we will face an acute staffing crisis in sterile processing in the next ten years.

Comprehensive Approach Needed

In order to head off this looming staffing crisis, we in sterile processing need to develop plans on multiple fronts. A comprehensive approach to meeting the demand will include at least all of the following:

  • Make sterile processing a more visible and attractive field for young people to enter.

  • Increase the availability of education programs that will provide the pipeline for new entrants into the field.

  • Incorporate robotics and automation into our work.

We must partner with experts in other fields to accomplish this mission. I certainly do not hold myself out as an expert in the fields of educational policy or robotics and automation, but I know there are brilliant people in those fields who can help us. We have to reach out in a coordinated effort to get the ball rolling. If we do not, the struggles we face now from chronically understaffed and undertrained sterile processing departments will pale in comparison to the future.

A Call to Action

I am calling for leaders in sterile processing to come together in an effort to head off this coming staffing crisis. Join me at the International Association for Healthcare Central Service Materiel Management Annual Conference in Anaheim, California on Saturday April 27 at 10:15 for a discussion on how to improve automation in sterile processing. My idea is to get the discussion started about what we believe should be the proper role of automation and how we can establish some standards to drive research and development in the most helpful direction. Please join me as we strive to make it possible to keep patients safe in the future.

James Carlock

Beyond Clean © 2019


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