If you haven’t already heard of the field of natural language processing (NLP) in the realm of artificial intelligence (AI)—taking the form of platforms like ChatGPT and others—you’re about to take a crash course, so buckle up. This article will lay out basic concepts to help you understand how this type of AI model can be deployed in your day-to-day sterile processing experience, equipping you to lead better, develop resources faster, and continue to think outside of the four walls of your department.

AI 101: You can’t know it all, but what must you know to get started?

As a sterile processing professional, your first step into the world of NLP might seem daunting, but understanding its basic concepts is simpler than you may think. Natural language processing, a specific branch of AI, focuses on the interaction between humans and machines through natural language. Simply put, it’s about teaching our computers to understand and interpret human language as we do. This technology has numerous applications, including language translation, chatbots, and even interpreting large amounts of data. For our teams in sterile processing, it could mean things like improved communication, streamlined workflows, and more efficient documentation, among a host of other cool and exciting uses.

Here are just a few examples of what’s possible to get your SPD-AI imagination going:

  1. Automated reporting: AI NLP can help automate the generation of reports in sterile processing departments (SPDs). These tools can turn structured data into written narratives, providing insightful and understandable reports. You might upload your immediate-use steam sterilization (IUSS) data from the last month, and the program will write up the report or the email that you can send to surgeons and OR leadership about the various causes and scenarios that led to IUSS loads. This can greatly reduce the time spent by department leaders on manual report writing.
  2. Inventory management: By using AI tool such as this, staff can simply voice-activate commands or queries to track and manage inventory across the hospital. Think Alexa or Siri, but with a badge and a pair of scrubs. Maybe we call it Clean Genie?Me: “Clean Genie, I need sterile Russian forceps for Room 12, but we’re out of them in our peel-pack storage. What’s my next best option?”

    [generating/thinking]

    Clean Genie: “There is one Minor Accessory Tray in sterile storage on shelf B3A that can be used. This has the fewest number of instruments in addition to the Russian forceps to make it easier to reprocess and is not on the needs list for any cases later today.”

    This kind of “conversation” can prove beneficial in situations where sterile processing staff have their hands full and need to know the location or status of a particular instrument or status of a process.

  3. Training and instruction: These kinds of AI tools can also be deployed in creating dynamic and interactive training materials. For example, a chatbot can be programmed to understand and respond to questions, providing instant answers and guidance to new staff or for ongoing education. On an even more introductory level, department educators or preceptors can use these kinds of platforms to generate lesson plans and orientation guides around specific topics, instructions for use (IFUs), or policies in a matter of minutes.
  4. Communication and collaboration: AI like this can also facilitate more consistent and thorough communication in your SPD. For instance, this type of system can transcribe and distribute minutes from team meetings, or translate conversations in real-time for departments that have multilingual staff, fostering a more efficient and engaged team environment. Just think about how many times you wished you had recorded the staff meeting or in-service for those who were out on PTO. Not only that, but these programs can then collate all your meeting minutes throughout the year and create summaries or reminder guides that can further assist you in hardwiring those changes into the day-to-day of your reprocessing team.
    The promised prompts

    For NLP technology, the prompt is one of the most important pieces of the entire AI puzzle. This is what you type into the text box to get the AI to begin working on whatever it is you want it to help you with. Because of this, clear and specific prompts are absolutely critical to enable the AI to understand your intent, and give you the most accurate and helpful responses it can.

    If you were sitting down in front of a computer in your SPD, here are a few prompt examples that you might find useful to play around with:

    1. “Outline an educational module for PPE compliance in the decontamination area of sterile processing”
    2. “Generate a competency checklist for cleaning our autoclaves based on this IFU [attach PDF]”
    3. “Review the following NewSplash article [copy-and-paste], and give me ideas for how to give an in-service on the topic”
    4. “List the steps for the inspection and assembly process of this type of surgical instrument prior to sterilization [attach the IFU]”
    5. “Develop ideas for department games we could play to learn surgical instrument names and uses”
    6. “Translate the cleaning instructions for this IFU [attach PDF] into Spanish”
    7. “Review the following ‘wheels out’ report from the OR and generate a staffing analysis based on this information [attach Excel doc]”
    8. “Generate a summary of the last staff meeting and then create a quiz to test comprehension of the main themes”
    9. “Create a reminder guide for changes implemented in our department team this quarter based on the attached meeting notes [attach document]”
    The world of the possible

    This can be a lot to take in all at once, especially if this is the first time you’ve really considered if and how tools like ChatGPT could help you in your sterile processing career. But the main takeaway I hope you get from this article is this: AI is not some far-off, inaccessible thing that only computer engineers and software developers can access. You, today, can begin using NLP tools to change the way you think about, engage with, and educate your entire SPD team.

    Consider this your prompt to take a closer look at AI today:

    “Generate a future where sterile processing professionals are the tip of the technological spear.”