Sterile Processing Technician Career Guide

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Sterile Processing Technician

What Is a Sterile Processing Technician?

Sterile processing technicians, sometimes referred to as SPT's, instrument techs, central sterile techs, or central processing techs, are skilled professionals responsible for organizing and preparing surgical instruments and other equipment used in healthcare settings. They are tasked with cleaning, inspecting, sterilizing, storing, testing, and delivering medical devices used in surgery and other procedures.

The work of a sterile processing technician is vital to patient safety. There are many different types of surgical instruments, from scalpels to endoscopes, and sterile processing technicians ensure they are sterile, in good working order, and available for surgery at a moment’s notice. Surgeons depend on having sterile, properly functioning equipment available to them in order to safely operate on a patient. SPTs take care of that important job.

What Does a Sterile Processing Technician Do?

Sterile processing technicians (SPTs) work behind the scenes, but their job is critical for the health and safety of patients. Their main responsibility is sterilizing and keeping track of all reusable surgical instruments and other devices. They catalog and organize them, clean and sterilize them, and make sure they are ready for surgery.

For surgeries that are planned ahead, the sterile processing technician will prepare all equipment ahead of time. For emergency surgeries, the technician will often have to sterilize, gather, and organize needed equipment without much notice. The technician keeps track of all instruments used in the healthcare setting.

In hospitals, sterile processing technician teams run 24 hours a day. They constantly have surgical instruments being washed, sterilized, cooled, organized, assembled, and stored in sterile packaging. To keep the work environment sterile, the technicians wear protective gear, such as masks, gowns or suits, gloves, and eye protection.

How Do You Become a Sterile Processing Technician?

A non-certified technician can complete a program in a few months. To make yourself more marketable and to learn more about the field, the following steps are suggested:

  1. Complete a sterile processing technician program online or at a local community or vocational college
  2. Complete any required practical, hands-on experience, depending on what your program requires
  3. Sit for a certifying exam with the Healthcare Sterile Processing Association or the Certification Board for Sterile Processing and Distribution

FAQs About Sterile Processing Technicians

What skills does a Sterile Processing Technician need?

The core skills that a sterile processing technician needs revolve around keeping surgical instruments and devices organized, sterile, and available. It is essential to become familiar with the process of sterilization, cooling, packaging, and organizing all equipment. Important skills include:

  • The ability to organize a constantly moving inventory of medical equipment
  • Being comfortable working closely with needles and other sharp objects
  • Being able to work for long hours standing up
  • Being comfortable wearing personal protective equipment

Work Settings For a Sterile Processing Technician

Sterile processing technicians work wherever surgeries and medical procedures are completed. More than two-thirds of all sterile processing technicians work in hospitals, where they are needed around the clock. Other technicians work in dentist’s offices, doctor’s offices, or outpatient care centers. Technicians in private offices are more likely to work regular office hours. Wherever surgical and other medical procedures are done, a sterile processing technician will be needed.

Common Cases a Sterile Processing Technician Encounters

Sterile processing technicians who work in doctor’s offices help prepare equipment for in-office procedures. These depend on the physician’s specialty but can include equipment for things like pap smears, skin growth removal, or ear cleaning.

SPTs who work with dentists or other oral health medical professionals are responsible for keeping tools like drills, probes, and suctioning equipment clean and sterile.

In hospitals or surgical centers, the work will vary more widely depending on the surgery or procedure being done. These can include medical instruments and devices used for anything from Cesarean sections to cancer treatment to knee replacement surgery. Technicians working in large hospitals handle thousands of medical instruments regularly.

How To Advance Your Career as a Sterile Processing Technician?

Sterile processing technicians who want to advance their careers can learn management skills to become a supervisor of other technicians. Other than that, there is not much room for advancement without obtaining more education. Some technicians go back to school to become surgical technicians, medical laboratory technicians, or other medical professionals.

Education Requirements & Helpful Certifications for a Sterile Processing Technician

There is no formal education required to become a sterile processing technician other than a high school diploma. To become more marketable, it is advisable to look into educational training programs and certifications.

There are training programs available at community colleges, vocational schools, and online. Some can be completed in as little as eight weeks while others take up to two years to complete the program requirements.

At the moment, only Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, and Tennessee require their technicians to be certified. Other states are changing their regulations and we will see more and more states requiring certification soon. Even if a state doesn't require all technicians to be certified, many workplaces may still require certification.

Some certification exams require practical experience before sitting for the exam. Two accrediting bodies offer certification for sterile processing technicians: the Healthcare Sterile Processing Association and the Certification Board for Sterile Processing and Distribution.

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