Where Do Awesome Sterile Processing Techs Come From?

If you’ve ever watched the epic Star Wars films, you may be familiar with the journey of Luke Skywalker. Luke, born with strong “Force” sensitivity, displays natural skills and abilities beyond the ordinary. However, it isn’t until he receives training from Jedi Masters like Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda that he learns to harness and control “the Force.” This balance of inherent capabilities and rigorous training is what transforms Luke from a Tatooine farm boy into a powerful Jedi.

While we are not recruiting Jedis into the world of sterile processing (yet), we do find our industry regularly pondering the question: Where do awesome sterile processing technicians (SPTs) come from? Do they naturally display inherent skills like Luke, or can they be plucked from the street and simply molded by a powerful training process?

By default—natural born SPTs

Some people seem to be born with qualities that lend themselves perfectly to the SPT role. This is their default setting. These individuals have an uncanny attention to detail, allowing them to perform thorough inspections and keep track of complex sterilization processes.

Their inherent ability to multitask—juggling numerous duties simultaneously without losing their cool—is a marvel to behold, especially under stress. Most importantly, they possess an innate sense of care that extends beyond the instruments in front of them. They understand that their actions directly impact the health and safety of patients, driving them to strive for excellence in every task they perform, from reloading indicators on a prep and pack table to loading carts into the cart washer. No one taught them this. They were born with it.

By design—what training can do for SPTs

Natural talent, while essential, can only take an individual so far. This is where design comes into play: robust, comprehensive training programs. These programs educate technicians about quality assurance, instilling a culture of excellence and reliability. They equip technicians with tools for process improvement, enabling them to identify bottlenecks and inefficiencies, and devise solutions to problems they encounter in their own workflows. They teach error-prevention techniques, reducing the risk of mishaps and enhancing patient safety.

Additionally, these training programs inform technicians about regulatory compliance, ensuring they are well-versed in industry standards and best practices and can speak to them during accreditation surveys.

How to balance the awesome

The magic of sterile processing excellence lies in the balance of this nature and nurture approach to recruiting and training our teams. No technician is complete without both natural skill and robust training. However, there’s a pervasive myth and practice out there that tends to withhold much of this more robust training around quality assurance, process improvement tools, error prevention techniques, and regulatory compliance for department leaders only.

Frontline technicians are sometimes forced to rely primarily or even exclusively on their natural skills, while many of these higher level concepts are reserved for upline leadership training.

The truth is the more these robust training concepts are understood by frontline technicians, the more proactive they can become in streamlining their own processes, preventing their own errors (and those of their peers), and promoting a culture of continuous improvement where the work is actually happening—on the reprocessing floor. After all, it’s the technicians on the frontlines who turn theory into practice, witnessing firsthand the effects of their actions on patient safety and department efficiency.

You must unlearn what you have learned

So, what can you do with this little bit of information today? First, take a word from Master Yoda and “unlearn what you have learned” in the past regarding natural skills versus training in sterile processing. Yes, some folks will come in with an innate edge for this job. While this may give them a great running start, it is still not enough to get them up to the level of awesome technician that we all strive for. For this to happen, those innate skills must be complemented with a truly robust and thorough training program.

Which brings us to the big takeaway from this article: Take another look at how and who you are training in your department. Is your training primarily around the basics of the job? Is there any pathway for those eager to learn more or learn it faster? How would you respond to (and support) a new technician who wants to nerd out over error-prevention techniques? Do you have resources or programs available for frontline technicians to pursue these things even, and especially, if they are not a department leader?

If your answers to the questions above feed into the traditional narrative that only leaders need to know those things, perhaps this article will help dissuade you from that position. If you are one of those eager technicians who feels like there is something really special about your passion for sterile processing, but you feel like you have outpaced what you can do merely with your natural skills, this article may help explain where you are missing out.

Ultimately, the answer to the question “Where do awesome sterile processing technicians come from?” is “By default and by design!” It will take a blend of both of these to develop high-performing individuals and teams who can overcome the complexities of today and stay up to date with the ever-present shifts of tomorrow’s surgical innovations.

What say you?