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The Catalyst

Hospital's sterile processing ops goes mobile

By Aimee Murray
Public Relations


A sterile processing technician assembles surgical trays for use in the hospital’s operating rooms. photos by Aimee Murray

A surgical infection is the type of thing you may never in your life think about until it happens to you.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on any given day, about one in 25 hospital patients develop at least one health care–associated infection. In 2011, an estimated 157,500 people developed some type of infection from an inpatient surgery and about 75,000 hospital patients with health care–associated infections died during their hospitalizations.

These are serious statistics that should capture the attention of hospital administrators. And at MUSC they certainly do.

MUSC’s Sterile Processing Department, guardian against the spread of infection via medical equipment, is a 24/7 operation, responsible for cleaning, decontaminating, disinfecting, assembling and sterilizing surgical instruments and medical devices. The department supports operating rooms, procedural areas, clinics and research areas.    

Sally Potts, R.N., director of sterile processing, said the process is often misconstrued.

“When people think of sterile processing, they sometimes think of the technicians as glorified dishwashers, but they are not. Not at all,” she said.

A technician sorts through instruments.

Cleaning and sterilizing various surgical instruments is time–consuming and staff must be meticulous. Potts said instrument trays are delivered to her department from operating rooms and clinics and all of the debris must be scrubbed off. Instruments then go through a wash cycle, which usually takes forty–five minutes. A drying cycle follows and assemblers reconstruct the set and inspect the instruments. It is only then that the set goes into the sterilizer.

With the number of surgeries on campus dramatically increasing and only one processing site operating in Ashley River Tower, SPD leaders realized department capacity would also have to increase.

Michael Sawin, manager of sterile processing, confirmed the surge in the volume of surgeries.

“Last August (2013), when I took over the department, we were processing 6,100 trays every two weeks. Since Feb. 9, we have increased exponentially. In the last period we processed 8,900 trays in a two week period. On average, that’s an extra 1,400 trays a week we are processing,” he said.    

To solve the problem, SPD began renovating the processing site in the basement of the Children’s Hospital, but the immediate problem still existed. To alleviate the number of surgical kits processed by the ART location, Potts and Sawin explored other options, including outsourcing and sending the equipment out of state.

“Really that situation wasn’t optimal for running an operating room because we need our sets (of instruments) back in a timely manner. We also could have continued trying to process everything at ART, but we would have had to run double shifts at night. Even then, sets wouldn’t have been out in time for surgeries,” Potts said.

The mobile sterile processing unit will continue to be in operation until mid-July, which is when the hospital’s permanent, renovated facility is scheduled to reopen.

The third and most convenient option was to bring one of three existing mobile sterile processing units to campus. The mobile unit, though generally smaller than stationary departments, provides a full capacity sterile processing operation, allowing staff to clean and sterilize equipment just as efficiently as the ART location.

On Feb. 23, the unit, with two sterilizers, three washers and the capability to process up to 200 surgical instrument trays per day, arrived on campus after a cross–country trip.

Once the unit arrived, SPD staff had to be trained how to use the new equipment. Potts explained the difficulties faced by SPD staff.    

“The staff had about a week to learn how to use the equipment in the processor. Steris Corporation came and provided all of the training. It’s pretty miraculous that the staff was able to pick it up that quickly. The staff is the success story here. They really learned quickly what they needed to do to make it work,” said Potts.

As renovation efforts continue, the mobile unit has proven to be more than just efficient, but also essential.

Sawin explained that the processing location in ART had problems with its water supply one week. The problem prevented staff from using the washers for more than eight hours.
“If we didn’t have the mobile unit, physicians and nurses scheduled to perform the next day’s surgeries and clinics would have been severely impacted in their ability to take care of patients,” he said.

With a goal to provide an excellent patient experience, the SPD, physicians and operating room nurses work together to ensure quality care.    

“The staff and physicians are our customers,” Sawin said, “We’re dependent on them to give us information about what they need and the condition of instruments when they receive them, so we’ll know if repairs are necessary. They’re dependent on us to take that information and get the instruments turned over to ensure they have the proper equipment when they need it.”
Potts added, “It’s very much a team effort. It has to be to run well.”


April 25, 2014



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