The Impacts of Staffing Shortages on Sterile Processing

The medical industry has long been fearing a staffing shortage, even before the COVID-19 outbreak. The pandemic, however, has exacerbated this issue.  A Washington Post – Kaiser Family Foundation Poll found that roughly 3 in 10 healthcare workers have contemplated leaving the medical profession, and  6 in 10 have experienced harmful mental health side effects related to burnout and stress. What’s less studied and understood, is staffing shortages on instrument reprocessing departments and professionals.

Central sterile is a heart, pumping surgical devices and equipment throughout the hospital. While sterile processing staff may not interact directly with patients, the behind-the-scenes impact they have on patient safety is unparalleled. Lapses in any reprocessing create potential consequences for patients.

Staffing shortages are affecting sterile processing departments in substantial ways now. Check out our blog post, Sterile Processing in 2022: “The Industry is Coming Home to Roost” for insights from sterile processing management across the United States.

Consider the following ramifications and challenges faced by departments struggling to maintain necessary staffing levels:

1. Understaffed departments reduce morale and cultural initiatives

Stress often begets more stress. When faced with conditions that don’t improve or change, staff can feel helpless and overwhelmed. The cultural initiatives created by management (team building, implementing Core Values, recognizing high performance) can feel insignificant against resolving the real challenge: finding and keeping quality people. While managers should continuously strive to foster a great culture in their department, it may not be enough to bridge productivity gaps.

2. Reduction in productivity and throughput

Fewer people working in decontamination, assemble trays, or prepare case carts means more working individually. Even for departments retaining their high performers, most employees will experience diminishing returns when overexerting themselves for too long . A team member taking on more consecutive days, increasing their total workdays, or being pushed to their limit during a regular shift is likely to be less productive than they would be in normal conditions.

 

3. Increased risks of mistakes and errors

Central sterile technicians have a high bar to meet: 100% clean and 100% sterile every single time. With no room for mistakes, the focus should always be on quality, not quantity. However, with fewer people than ever, and technicians being required to do laborious tasks for increased durations, the risk of non-standardized processes and lapses in cleaning increases notably..

 

4. Reassignment of important projects

The stress associated with a lack of personnel isn’t limited to technicians alone. Management may find themselves donning PPE and getting back into decontam just to get trays pushed through. If managers need to regularly jump in to help with daily reprocessing tasks, they may find their long-term, growth-focused projects being pushed to the sidelines. Immediate priorities often take precedent over strategic ones.

 

5. Permanent loss of staff

One of the biggest consequences of perpetual staffing shortages and burnout is the permanent exodus of healthcare workers. With dissatisfaction on the rise, and the existing challenge of filling vacancies in SPDs, losing staff for good to other industries and professions will have long-term effects on the healthcare industry.

 

Understaffed central sterile departments would have argued it was difficult to hire people before the pandemic. Now, it may feel impossible to get through a single shift without burnout, stress, dissatisfaction, or mistakes. Understanding the tools management must cope with understaffed conditions is vital. Consider a few of the following to start alleviating problems regarding being short-staffed::

  • Partnerships with other central sterile management, organizations such as HSPA, and local counties, which assist with hiring needs, often for free
  • Streamlining tasks and processes whenever possible if it doesn’t impact patient safety outcomes
  • Cross-train, and improve onboarding to get younger or new staff acclimated to not only reprocessing, but the culture of sterile processing & services

To get connected with additional resources to help remedy understaffed departments, visit our Association & Education Links webpage to visit related Associations, and find local academic programs training the next generation of sterile processing professionals.

 

Works Cited

https://www.washingtonpost.com/context/washington-post-kff-frontline-health-care-workers-survey-feb-11-march-7-2021/ba15a233-9495-47a9-9cdd-e7fa1578b1ca/?itid=lk_inline_manual_7

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