Why AI Can’t Replace Sterile Processing and Operating Room Professionals

Artificial intelligence (AI) is rapidly transforming many facets of healthcare, improving patient outcomes, and enhancing the efficiency of medical procedures. However, many fear AI will replace human healthcare professionals, particularly in highly specialized areas such as the operating room (OR) and sterile processing (SP). Let’s explore the role of AI in these critical departments and explain why AI is a valuable tool for enhancing rather than replacing human expertise.

AI and sterile processing

How exactly will AI impact sterile processing? The verdict is still out on that one. There is potential for errors whenever we have thousands of instruments, surgical devices, and pieces of equipment necessary for reprocessing and sterilization. We also have a plethora of data that coincides with each device.

Multiple instrument tracking systems on the market act as a place where data is stored, inventories are managed, and workflows are improved. The issue we see is that there is so much data and so little translation of how that data acts to serve us and, ultimately, our end-users (the patients). Mistakes occur in both the OR and SP, and they are inevitable because humans make errors, but the numbers speak volumes

“In American hospitals alone, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that HAIs account for an estimated 1.7 million infections and 99,000 associated deaths each year.”1

AI as a friend

It’s possible that AI can become our friend to help in error reduction as we navigate the thousands of variables in SP. Here are a few areas that it could serve:

  • Identifying instruments that are more likely to require extra attention during cleaning and sterilization allows technicians to prioritize instrumentation and ensure they are properly reprocessed
  • Monitoring the sterilization process to ensure instruments are properly sterilized before use
  • Monitoring sterilization equipment to alert technicians if anything in the sterilization process is awry

AI cannot replace the expertise of human healthcare professionals in sterile processing. Technicians rely on their training, experience, and judgment to ensure that instruments are properly processed and ready for use. AI can provide valuable insights and support, but it is ultimately up to technicians to ensure the instruments are correctly processed.

AI and the operating room

We all know that the most minor mistakes in the OR can have life-altering consequences. We have multiple team members necessary to complete a procedure, from the surgeon to the anesthesiologist, reps, nurses, and techs. Now sprinkle in the massive amount of equipment needed to execute a single procedure, including surgical instrumentation, monitors, lighting, integration systems, scopes, back tables, and more. The number of moving parts necessary to complete a case efficiently and safely is mind-blowing.

Here are a few areas where AI can serve our ORs:

  • Monitoring vital signs
  • Providing real-time feedback to surgeons during a procedure, helping them make more informed decisions
  • Identify potential risks before a procedure even begins; for example, AI can analyze patient data to predict the likelihood of complications during a procedure
The devil is in the details

How incredible is it that we can now provide insights into potential interventions before we even need them? The saying states that the devil is in the details, and one of the biggest challenges of an OR is the variables we cannot predict.

While AI can provide valuable insights and support in the operating room, the human touch, years of training and expertise, and the professionals behind each decision can never be replaced. Surgeons, nurses, and techs rely on their expertise, experience, and judgment to make critical decisions that data and monitoring never can. AI can provide real-time data and insights, but ultimately, the teams are where healthcare’s magic and the care part kick in.

As technology continues to advance, we must continue to adapt accordingly, choosing to bring the puzzle pieces to our sterile fields that don’t cross the line, but rather elevate the capabilities.

  1. “Healthcare-Acquired Infections (HAIs),” PatientCareLink.org, accessed October 26, 2023, https://www.patientcarelink.org/improving-patient-care/healthcare-acquired-infections-hais/.