Sterile Processing Technician Career Information
M any healthcare workers are considered essential, but few are as fundamentally important as sterile processing technicians. Without them, hospitals would not be able to function. Patients would not receive necessary surgeries. And many more people would lose their lives from preventable infection or untreated medical conditions. The work of sterile processing technicians impacts nearly every department within modern hospitals and surgical centers. What they do might not be glamorous, but you'd be hard-pressed to discover workers that make more of a critical difference at such a basic level.
What is a Sterile Processing Technician?
This occupation doesn't receive much of the spotlight, but that doesn't mean it should be overlooked. Because it is one of the most vital positions in healthcare, people who choose it must learn and apply plenty of specialized skills and knowledge. (Plus, going unnoticed is actually a sign that they are doing their jobs well.) So, what is a sterile processing technician?
A sterile processing technician is someone who cleans and sterilizes used surgical instruments and other medical supplies so that they can be safely redistributed and reused on additional patients. This work is usually centralized in a special department of the medical facility.
Besides "sterile processing technician," job titles in this occupation can also include variations such as:
- Central processing technician (CPT)
- Sterile processing and distribution technician (SPD tech)
- Central processing and distribution technician (CPD tech)
- Central service technician (CST)
- Central sterile supply technician (CSS tech)
- Sterile processing supply technician
- Central sterile processing technician
- Central sterile technician
- Central supply technician
- Sterile instrument technician
- Sterile supply technician
What is Sterile Processing? (And Why is It So Important?)
A typical hospital uses (and reuses) tens of thousands of medical instruments every month. Although some supplies are disposable, many are not. The reusable supplies come with their own special instructions for proper cleaning and maintenance. Failing to adequately look after even one surgical instrument can have dangerous consequences. So, what is sterile processing?
Sterile processing is the act of carrying out a specific set of procedures in order to decontaminate and sterilize used medical instruments so that they can be placed back into appropriate sets and safely reused on new patients.
After surgeries or other medical procedures, the non-disposable devices that were used are sent back to the sterile processing and distribution department (sometimes known as "central service" or "central supply") for reprocessing. The department is generally divided into four main areas, and the basic process usually involves:
- Decontamination—Special brushes, machines, chemicals, detergents, and various techniques are used to remove blood, bone, and other human tissues (collectively known as "bioburden" or "soil") from all of the surfaces, nooks, channels, and crevices of recently utilized medical instruments.
- Assembly and packaging—The decontaminated items are referred to as "clean" and are inspected and prepared for sterilization and placement into appropriate sets or trays.
- Sterilization and storage—Sets of clean items are sterilized using special equipment such as autoclaves and placed into appropriate storage until they need to be reissued.
- Distribution—Case carts of instrument sets are prepared and delivered to operating rooms or other areas of the hospital, new orders are filled, and additional carts are exchanged or replenished.
Medical patients have a very basic expectation that any instruments used on them will be clean and sterile. In fact, they often take a safe medical care environment for granted. But errors in sterile processing do happen, and they can result in patients acquiring life-threatening infections or contracting blood-borne pathogens like HIV and hepatitis.
Although patient death from it is relatively rare, the undetected use of dirty medical instruments is nevertheless a common problem in many hospitals due to:
- High volume of items requiring reprocessing and demand for rapid turnaround times
- The use of increasingly complex medical devices that are harder to clean and sterilize
- Resource shortages in sterile processing departments
- Flawed instrument design by manufacturers that make some items practically impossible to properly inspect or clean thoroughly
So, as stated before, sterile processing technicians have an extremely important and challenging job. Infection prevention starts with them.
What is a Typical Sterile Processing Technician Job Description?
Sterile processing technicians have various responsibilities depending on which area of a central service department they are tasked to work in. But, since they often rotate through different areas, most share some common duties (even though they might not perform all of them on the same day). So, what does a sterile processing technician job description usually include?
A sterile processing technician generally has duties such as:
- Decontaminating used surgical instruments and other medical devices
- Operating and maintaining special decontamination equipment like automatic washers
- Inspecting decontaminated items to make sure they are clean
- Organizing clean items and packaging them into appropriate instrument trays and sets
- Sterilizing assembled trays of instruments
- Precisely operating and monitoring special sterilization equipment like autoclaves
- Keeping detailed records of items that have been cleaned, sterilized, and stored
- Keeping detailed records of equipment maintenance
- Inspecting and testing sterilizing equipment to ensure its effectiveness
- Reporting malfunctioning equipment
- Removing waste matter from equipment
- Stocking crash carts
- Organizing sterilized medical supplies
- Ensuring that sterile supplies don't become outdated
- Delivering sterile supplies where they are needed and picking up dirty ones
Sterile processing technicians must know how to:
- Use a variety of special tools such as barcode readers, steam autoclaves, and chemical and gas sterilizers
- Properly utilize personal protective equipment (PPE) like gowns, face shields, and rubber gloves
- Use computer software for database and supply chain management
- Stay on top of the changing technologies and regulations that are relevant to the job
- Follow precise instructions
- Adhere to rigid standards
Where Can a Sterile Processing Technician Work?
Sterile processing technicians primarily work for one of two types of employers:
- Hospitals (where most sterile processing techs work)
- Outpatient surgical centers
The most common work environment is a department located in an out-of-the-way area of a medical facility. The department is usually called something like sterile processing and distribution (SPD), central service, central processing, central supply, or another variation thereof.
What is the Difference Between a Sterile Processing Technician and a Surgical Technologist?
It is very important to understand that a sterile processing technician is NOT the same thing as a surgical technologist.
Surgical technologists work in operating rooms; sterile processing techs do not.
Although some surgical technologists begin their careers by working in a sterile processing department, they generally have more education and a wider skill set that is more specific to working in an operating room.
To learn more about surgical technologists, check out this surgical tech career information article.
What is the Typical Sterile Processing Technician Salary?
A sterile processing technician salary depends greatly on geographic location and level of experience. And national statistics lump sterile processing technicians in with other "medical equipment preparers."
Based on national estimates, the median annual wage for medical equipment preparers in 2010 was $29,490.* This means that half earned more than that, and half earned less. But a typical sterile processing tech salary probably falls close to this median.
Generally speaking, starting pay for sterile processing technicians seems to start around $9 to $13 per hour and can go as high as about $29 per hour with lots of experience. Of course, this all depends on your employer and work location. Most full-time sterile processing techs also receive full benefits.
Can You Tell Me How to Become a Sterile Processing Technician?
Learning how to become a sterile processing technician is actually pretty simple since it is an entry-level occupation that requires minimal education.
First, you need to research your local job market (or the one in which you intend to work) to get a feel for how competitive it is. Check out the job listings at various hospitals and surgery centers. If there are a lot of open positions for sterile processing technicians, then the market is probably not too competitive. But if there are few listings, you should expect things to be a little more challenging.
In most of the markets with high demand and little competition, it is possible to get hired as a sterile processing technician without any post-secondary training, experience, or certification. In such cases, a high school diploma is likely the highest credential you'll need. (Most hospitals have their own on-the-job training programs.)
But in more competitive job markets like California, you may need to meet higher qualifications. Many of the sterile processing job openings in competitive regions will require a year or two of previous experience and/or proof that you are certified as either a Certified Registered Central Service Technician (CRCST) or a Certified Sterile Processing and Distribution Technician (CSPDT).
CRCST certification is offered through the International Association of Healthcare Central Service Material Management (IAHCSMM).
CSPDT certification is offered through the Certification Board for Sterile Processing and Distribution (CBSPD).
To obtain either certification, you must qualify for a written exam and then pass it. You can choose to study for the exam on your own by ordering the books and study guides directly from the certifying organization, or you can enroll in a short post-secondary sterile processing program at a school of your choice.
One of the advantages of some formal training programs is that they can set you up with an externship in a medical facility. This can provide you with good networking opportunities because some hospitals like to hire new sterile processing techs that they've already worked with.
Regardless of your location, it might take persistence to ultimately land the sterile processing job you want.
Do Sterile Processing Technicians Need to Be Certified?
Certification is currently required in only one state: New Jersey. However, legislation that would require sterile processing technicians to be certified is now pending in two other states: New York and Pennsylvania.
In all other states, certification is strictly voluntary. But that doesn't mean it isn't a good idea to obtain. Many hospitals and surgical centers prefer to hire certified sterile processing techs. Plus, some employers will increase your pay if you are certified.
The two main certifying organizations are the IAHCSMM and the CBSPD. Both require you to pass an exam. Once certified, you must accrue continuing education points in order to renew your certification at regular intervals.
What Kinds of Traits Do Sterile Processing Technicians Need to Possess?
Although you need only minimal credentials to begin a career as a sterile processing technician, you stand the best chance of succeeding if you possess the following traits:
- Consistent dependability
- A deep sense of responsibility and personal ethics
- The courage to speak up about any problems you recognize
- A cooperative attitude
- A passionate concern about the safety of yourself and others
- Intense attention to detail
- The ability to work independently, self-monitor, and self-assess
- Good judgment and critical thinking skills
- Strong communication and active listening skills
- The ability to maintain composure in the face of stress or criticism
- Physical stamina
- Good manual dexterity in your arms, hands, and fingers
- The ability to lift 20 to 30 pounds repeatedly
Are There Any Downsides to Being a Sterile Processing Technician?
Sterile processing is not for everyone. Although many people enjoy this type of work and feel a great sense of pride and accomplishment from doing it, you should understand that there are some potential drawbacks. The cons of being a sterile processing tech can include:
- Exposure to infectious pathogens—Despite wearing protective gear and following strong safety precautions, there is still a small risk of contracting a serious illness due to having regular contact with human blood, bone, tissue, and bodily secretions. It takes only one careless mistake.
- Frantic stress—There is often a lot of pressure to reprocess medical instruments quickly due to a jam-packed slate of surgeries and other procedures. But the job also demands that quality decontamination and sterilization never be compromised. So it can be a stressful challenge to work at a very fast pace while also ensuring the necessary quality.
- Physical demands—The work requires a lot of standing, movement of heavy objects, and repetitive motions. In addition, handling sharp surgical instruments sometimes results in getting pricks and cuts.
What are the Upsides of Being a Sterile Processing Technician?
For the people who choose to stay in sterile processing, the positives outweigh the negatives. Here are some of the best parts of being a sterile processing technician:
- A sense of great purpose—Because sterile processing techs have such an important role to play, they often feel a lot of pride. It can be very fulfilling to know that your work is so meaningful.
- Plenty of work to keep you stimulated—If you enjoy a steady routine, then boredom as a sterile processing tech is unlikely. Most hospitals always have more than enough work to keep their central service departments busy.
- Shift flexibility—The sterile processing departments of most hospitals are active 24 hours a day, seven days a week. With experience and seniority come opportunities to choose the shifts that best fit your preferred schedule.
How Long Does It Take to Train for a Sterile Processing Technician Career?
In-house training for sterile processing jobs at hospitals generally takes from three to nine months for people without any experience. Even if you have some schooling in this field, you will still likely need to undergo this training due to the unique layouts and policies of individual hospitals.
If you choose to enroll in a formal sterile processing technician program at a post-secondary institution, then you can normally expect your schooling to last nine months or less.
How Much Does Sterile Processing Technician Training Cost?
On-the-job training programs in hospitals cost nothing. (If they hire you, you will be considered a paid employee while you train.)
Formal training in sterile processing at a post-secondary school generally costs from as little as $450 to $18,000 or more depending on the type of school you choose, its location, and the depth of its curriculum. Some schools include an externship at a real medical facility as part of their programs.
You can also learn the basics of sterile processing on your own by studying for a certification exam independently. Learning materials from the IAHSMM or the CBSPD generally cost less than $200.
What Can I Learn at a Sterile Processing Technician School?
Sterile processing technician programs can vary significantly in their curricula from school to school. In general, though, you are likely to have courses that cover the following subjects:
- Medical terminology
- Anatomy and physiology
- Infection control
- Identifying surgical instruments
- Decontamination tools and processes
- Low- and high-temperature sterilization methods
- Point-of-use processing
- Assembling surgical instrument trays
- Inventory management
- Safety protocols
- Communication and human relations
- Tracking systems
- Quality assurance
- Sterile processing regulations and standards
Do Sterile Processing Technicians Get Any Advancement Opportunities?
Sterile processing technicians are entry-level healthcare workers. As such, they certainly have the opportunity to grow into more advanced positions. But doing so usually requires additional formal training and relevant credentials.
Within central service departments, sterile processing technicians who have the right credentials sometimes advance into supervisory positions such as lead tech or department manager. (The IAHCSMM offers the Certification in Healthcare Leadership (CSL) for those who already possess CRCST certification and can pass an additional exam.)
Beyond the central service department, some sterile processing technicians go on to train for careers as surgical technologists. Sterile processing provides an excellent gateway to surgical technology because of the routine handling of the many different types of surgical instruments. Sterile processing technicians get to know them by heart, which is also important in the role of a surgical tech.
What is the Job Outlook for Sterile Processing Technicians?
With the growing healthcare needs of the aging population, demand should remain high. In fact, the employment of medical equipment preparers (which include sterile processing technicians) is expected to grow by 17 percent between 2010 and 2020, which is about as fast as the average for all occupations.*
How Can I Get Started?
Start by researching the demand for sterile processing technicians in your area. Hospitals generally post their available job listings online. At the same time, you can explore the formal schooling options that exist. This list of sterile processing technician schools is a good place to begin. You could soon be providing an invaluable service that ensures the safety of patients and keeps hospitals and surgical centers running.
* Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition, web site last accessed on September 10, 2012.
The Occupational Information Network (O*NET), web site last accessed on September 10, 2012.
International Association of Healthcare Central Service Material Management (IAHCSMM), web site last accessed on September 12, 2012.
The Certification Board for Sterile Processing and Distribution, Inc. (CBSPD), web site last accessed on September 12, 2012.
Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation (AAMI), web site last accessed on September 7, 2012.
The Center for Public Integrity, "How dirty medical devices expose patients to infection," Joe Eaton, February 22, 2012.