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The Fast-Food Approach to Sterile Processing

Updated: Mar 10, 2022

Sterile processing departments are often understaffed, undereducated, and mostly undercompensated. Support from upper management often is lacking, and to a large extent, the processes and functionality of the department are misunderstood. Next man up is a common approach when staff exit the department to look for better jobs and careers. The Human Resource Departments tend to focus on personnel without experience or education in the sterile processing field to help fill openings and quotas quickly. This leaves the department in a cyclical process of replacing staff often.

Fast Food Restaurants

Have you noticed that your local fast-food chains always have for-hire banners hanging up at their locations? The reason for this is poor working conditions. There may be a few exceptions to the rule, but not many. The working conditions are hot, high-paced, and lack respect from their customers and often management. Angry customer throws hot soup in fast-food worker's face claiming it had plastic in it. Expectations are high, and why not. We want quality for our money. But what do you expect with little training, constant turnover, and an overload of work? Quality can be fleeting. Unfortunately, it is a rarity when I frequent a fast food restaurant near me that I get what I ordered, or when I do; I receive high quality. Wendy's hot and crispy fries advertisement should give you pause. The advertisement is driven by the fact that we often order fries at fast-food restaurants and receive old and cold food. It has become an expectation of the customer to expect low quality. Otherwise, we would not check the bag before we have pulled away.

Sterile Processing Departments

Having worked both in fast-food restaurants and sterile processing, I find similarities. The working conditions described above are the same or similar in sterile processing departments. Turnover is high, and quality is challenging. The customer expectations don't change and shouldn't. Patient safety is at risk. Just as in fast-food service, sterile processing departments have no control over their workload volume. It is sometimes like having a bus pull up to your door. If you have never worked in fast food, that is a worst-case scenario. Other days, you get the heads up that loaner trays are coming in by the hundreds. You can try to plan for it, but I find it similar to when I worked in fast food, and at the end of training camp in the NFL, the Washington Football Team would place an order of unimaginable amounts of Kentucky Fried Chicken. We came in early, in the middle of the night, to meet their needs.

Staff Pay

In today's world, the pay rate in fast food restaurants is competitive to many sterile processing departments. The 2020 HPN Salary Survey for sterile processing lists an average pay for technicians at just over $17 hr. You commonly find hiring banners offering $15-$17 hours at fast food establishments. Staff in sterile processing often work a second job to make ends meet. Overtime is offered on a consistent basis but overtime is overrated. It does help staff pay the bills and that is important, but often at the expense of exhaustion.

Comparing Work Models

The amount of time for a sterile processing technician to become proficient in his/her work compared to a fast-food worker is vastly different. It can take years for a sterile processing technician to become fully competent. Fast-food workers can become competent in days or weeks depending upon their trainer/training. I know this because I have trained staff in both professions. Quality expectations in sterile processing are much higher and failures have higher consequences. The environment is much more hazardous in sterile processing considering the reprocessing of surgical instruments vs. working with food. I would even venture to say that the equipment in sterile processing is more hazardous, although if you don't know what you are doing with a Henny Penny cooker that can be dangerous too.

With similar work environments, why do our expectations of the quality of work differ so much? We often accept what we receive from our fast-food restaurants as the norm. I applaud you who don't. I have just grown tired of the poor service and have scaled back my visits. With the patient safety consequences, sometimes life and death, we cannot accept the same in sterile processing. But the work models don't differ much. The fact that sterile processing departments place higher quality expectations and place their staff closer to harm's way with contaminated waste and chemicals for reprocessing is it any wonder why the staff is looking for new jobs?

At Evolved Sterile Processing, our consultants have a greater focus on sterile processing. With our decades of experience, we will help you develop better processes and educational resources for your staff.

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