Sterile Processing Technician Career Information
Many 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. You'd be hard-pressed to discover workers who make more of a critical difference at such a basic level.
You're already thinking about joining this crucial field—now you just need to know a bit more about it. Here are some of the most commonly asked questions about sterile processing, and the detailed answers you need. And, once you're ready to find a sterile processing technician school, this is the perfect place to get started.
What is a Sterile Processing Technician?
Because it is one of the most vital positions in the field of healthcare, people who work in sterile processing possess plenty of specialized skills and knowledge. 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)
- Surgical processing technician
What is Sterile Processing?
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.
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.
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
Sterilization and Storage
- 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
Inspection and Maintenance
- 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
Essential Skills and Knowledge Used in the Job
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 and 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, or central supply.
What is the Difference Between a Sterile Processing Technician and a Surgical Technologist?
Surgical technologists work in operating rooms; sterile processing technicians work in their own separate departments. Although some surgical technologists begin their careers by working in a sterile processing department, the education and skill set of a surgical tech 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. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics groups sterile processing technicians in with other "medical equipment preparers."
Based on national estimates from May 2012, the median annual wage for medical equipment preparers was $30,820.* This means that half earned more than that amount, and half earned less. The typical sterile processing tech salary likely falls close to this median.
Generally speaking, starting pay for sterile processing technicians tends to be around $10 to $14 per hour and can go as high as about $29 per hour with experience. Of course, this all depends on your employer and work location.
Most full-time sterile processing techs also receive full benefits like paid vacation and health insurance.
Can You Tell Me How to Become a Sterile Processing Technician?
Learning how to become a sterile processing technician is actually pretty simple. Here's the best way to go about it:
Find Out Whether You'll Need Certification
Many of the sterile processing job openings in competitive regions will require proof that you are certified as one of the following:
- Certified Registered Central Service Technician (CRCST)
- 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 pass a written exam.
Choose a School to Learn What You Need to Know
The first step in preparing for certification is to enroll in a post-secondary sterile processing program at a school of your choice. Depending on where you choose to attend, you could be given the opportunity to take part in an externship at a medical facility. This can provide you with good networking opportunities. Plus, hospitals often like to hire new sterile processing techs that they've already worked with.
Do Sterile Processing Technicians Need to Be Certified?
In terms of government regulations, 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.
You can learn everything you need to know to pass a certifying exam by enrolling in a sterile processing technician program at a school near you.
What are the Benefits of Being a Sterile Processing Technician?
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?
Sterile processing technician programs at post-secondary schools tend to last nine months or less.
In-house training for sterile processing at hospitals generally takes from three to nine months regardless of prior experience, due to the unique layouts and policies of individual facilities.
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
Sterile Processing Basics
- 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
- Tracking systems
- Quality assurance
- Regulations and standards
Do Sterile Processing Technicians Have Advancement Opportunities?
Sterile processing technicians are entry-level healthcare workers. As such, they certainly have the opportunity to grow into more advanced positions by obtaining 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.
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 all 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.**
How Can I Get Started?
Now that you know more about what it takes to become a sterile processing technician, the next step is to find the right training program. This list of sterile processing technician schools is a great place to begin! By requesting more information, you could soon be providing an invaluable service that ensures the safety of patients and keeps hospitals and surgical centers running smoothly.
* Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition, web site last accessed on May 16, 2013.
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.