Sterile Processing Technician
Sterile processing technicians play an important role in the health and safety of patients in hospitals and medical centers. As the professionals who inspect surgical tools, thoroughly clean and sanitize them, and prepare them for distribution during surgery, sterile processing technicians are on the front lines of patient safety. Training for this career can happen on the job, or students can opt for a certificate program that allows them to sit for certification and move into the profession.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), sterile processing technicians may also be called sterilization technicians, medical equipment preparers, central sterile supply technicians, central service technicians, or instrument technicians.
Though sometimes a sterile processing technician is also referred to as a surgical technologist, the two jobs are not the same. Surgical technologists work in the operating room or surgical suite, helping to prepare patients for surgery, passing instruments to surgeons, counting supplies, and maintaining a sterile environment. Sterile processing technicians make certain that those instruments are safe to use.
What does a sterile processing technician do?
Sterile processing technicians are tasked with preparing equipment for medical procedures by making sure it is sterile and ready to use. In addition to handling the sterilization and decontamination process of surgical supplies, instruments and equipment, sterile processing technicians may also:
- Record sterilization test results
- Maintain equipment inventory records
- Stock sterile supply carts
- Organize and prepare surgical trays and equipment
- Regularly examine medical equipment and instruments for defects
- Analyze and document important data concerning sterilization printouts, charts, biological indicators, chemical indicators, and chemical integrators; all with an understanding of the cycles and limitations of sterilizers
- Execute recall procedures for defective products, attentively tracking the amount of medical supplies used within the facility and taking responsibility for stock rotation of medical materials
The BLS reports that medical equipment preparers work mostly in hospitals and surgical centers, but they can also be found in outpatient care centers, specialty hospitals, dentist offices, and many other settings.
How to become a sterile processing technician
This hands-on job requires intense attention to detail and scrupulous work, but it does not require a college degree. Rather, most professionals learn through on-the-job training, honing skills with experience. However, those who have gone through a program to earn their certificate or diploma might see better hiring options among discerning employers.
A certification program can take anywhere from several weeks to a few months of study. Programs are usually designed for the working professional, and as such classes may be available online, on weekends, or at night, in addition to the traditional daytime schedules. Students in the certification program can expect to take courses in the following subjects:
- Medical terminology
- Anatomy and physiology
- Infection control
- Preparation and packaging
- Distribution of tools
Upon graduation from the program, students will be eligible to sit for the international certification examination, administered through the Certification Board for Sterile Processing and Distribution (CBSPD). There are currently five different certifications offered by the CBSPD which might suit a sterile processing technician:
- Surgical Instrument Specialist
- Flexible Endoscope Reprocessor
- Ambulatory Surgery Technician
Each certification requires a minimum number of hours of employment or graduation from an approved program, as well as passing the examination. Certification is valid for five years; during that time, the sterile processing technician must complete continuing education requirements and accumulate 100 points -- one point typically corresponds to one hour. These points can be obtained through adult or continuing education courses, college courses, in-services, publishing articles, sitting on committees, and more.
Other certifications are available through the International Association of Healthcare Central Service Materiel Management. These include:
- Certified Registered Central Service Technician (CRCST)
- Certified Instrument Specialist
- Certified Healthcare Leader
- Certified Central Service Vendor Program
In particular, a sterile processing technician might find the CRCST most advantageous. In order to qualify, applicants must complete at least 400 hours of hands-on experience with sterile processing, either on a paid or volunteer basis, and must pass an examination. The certification must be renewed annually, and requires 12 hours of continuing education each year.
Sterile processing technician training
Many sterile processing technicians choose to complete on-the-job training and then earn their certification. Some certificate programs offer internships and externships in order to help students complete this requirement.
While training on the job, sterile processing technicians can expect to learn and carry out the following core tasks:
- Disassemble, inspect, and reassemble tools that are typically used in surgical suites
- Take damaged tools out of surgical rotation and find suitable replacements
- Operate and maintain steam autoclaves and other disinfecting equipment
- Use various decontamination techniques for cleaning
- Prepare tools for distribution to operating rooms
Formal education and training opportunities for sterile processing technicians can be found in technical colleges, community colleges, continuing education centers, universities, business colleges, libraries, academic institutes, online schools, and area hospitals.
Sterile processing technician programs are designed to provide academic instruction in several different field-related subjects to properly prepare students for future job opportunities. Many of these programs begin by teaching students the fundamentals of life sciences as they relate to microbiology, disease transmission, modes of contamination, microorganisms, microbial growth conditions, anatomy and physiology, medical terminology, infection control, and disease prevention.
Students can also expect sterile processing technician programs to cover areas of sterilization such as sterile storage, preparation and packaging for sterilization, and methods of sterilization, including steam, dry heat, ethylene oxide gas, low temperature gas plasma, and peracetic acid. Additional education in aspects of sanitation like decontamination, chemical disinfection, and techniques in manual and mechanical cleaning can also be expected from sterile processing technician programs.
Other topics of the curriculum may encompass topics in safety, first-aid, pharmacology, inventory control, supply distribution, material management, and flexible gastrointestinal endoscopes. A flexible gastrointestinal endoscope is a long, thin, flexible rod with a small camera attached to the end that is inserted into the gastrointestinal tract in order to view the inside of the body.
Finally, since sterile processing technicians work with many different medical instruments, students are often required to complete a supervised clinical training portion where they can apply lessons in surgical instrumentation, preparation and handling of surgical instruments, and procedures for instrumentation inspection in actual health care and medical settings.
Salary information and career outlook
The work of a sterile processing technician is high-volume: a typical hospital uses 15,000 trays of instruments every month, and each of those trays may consist of 50 instruments. That's easily 750,000 instruments that pass through the hands of sterile processing technicians each month in one hospital or medical center, according to Martinson College.
The BLS estimates that demand for medical equipment preparers will increase by as much as 14 percent in the U.S. between 2014 and 2024. Much of this growth is contributed to the rise of outpatient care centers, health insurance legislation that makes medical care available and affordable for more patients, and the general growth of surgical procedures.
Medical equipment preparers made a mean annual wage of $44,330 in May 2015, according to the BLS. State-level information from the BLS reveals that the states with the highest mean annual wages for this position include:
- California: $45,100
- District of Columbia: $54,700
- Massachusetts: $51,400
- Hawaii: $54,440
With an expanding industry and good earning potential, sterile processing is an occupation that any prospective health care student should consider. To learn more about becoming a sterile processing technician or medical equipment preparer, request information from any of the schools listed below.
- About the CBSPD, Certification Board for Sterile Processing and Distribution, http://www.sterileprocessing.org/about_cbspd.htm
- CBSPD Candidate Bulletins and Applications, Certification Board for Sterile Processing and Distribution, http://sterileprocessing.org/download.htm#a1
- Certification Board for Sterile Processing and Distribution, http://www.sterileprocessing.org/cbspd.htm
- CRCST Certification, International Association of Healthcare Central Service Materiel Management, http://www.iahcsmm.org/certification-preparation/crcst-certification.html
- International Association of Healthcare Central Service Materiel Management, http://www.iahcsmm.org/
- Medical Equipment Preparers, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2014, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes319093.htm
- Medical Equipment Preparers, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Data for Occupations Not Covered in Detail, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/about/data-for-occupations-not-covered-in-detail.htm
- ONET, Medical Equipment Preparers, http://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/31-9093.00
- Sterile Processing Technician (SPT) Program, Martinson College of Southern California, http://www.martinsoncollege.com/SPT.html
- Surgical Technologists, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/surgical-technologists.htm