Jun 17, 2022 | Sterile Processing

What are the current surgical instrument labeling techniques?

Surgical instrument inventories come in all shapes and sizes, which is why it’s important to have versatile options for surgical instrument identification and labeling. While marking surgical instruments may seem like a painful process, it doesn’t have to be.

Thanks to new technologies in the sterile processing industry, labeling and tracking surgical instruments and trays is easier than ever. Surgical instrument identification solutions can house all instrument labeling techniques in one place, offering you complete control of your inventory and eliminating the need for multiple vendors.

To help you better understand what surgical instrument identification techniques might work best for your facility, we’ve compiled a list of a few options and their associated pros and cons.

Surgical instrument identification methods

Because each healthcare facility has different needs, there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to surgical instrument marking techniques. The best methods for your organization will depend on your overall inventory and the material, size and shape of each instrument.

Electrochemical marking

The electrochemical (ECM) surgical instrument marking method uses an electrical current, stencil and electrolyte fluid to place a mark on stainless steel instruments. Unlike etching and engraving, this mark doesn’t alter the surface of the instrument because it is applied below the instrument’s protective passivation layer.

Pro: Electrochemical marking creates a corrosion-free mark that doesn’t pose any threat to a surgical instrument’s integrity.

Con: The marks can erode over time and can sometimes be inadvertently removed if the instrument needs to be buffed during maintenance or repair.

Laser marking

Laser marking is the process of creating a traceable 2D barcode on a surgical instrument by heating its surface with a laser. It’s important to note that laser marking is NOT the same as laser etching or engraving, which creates grooves that impact the instrument’s surface. This not only compromises the integrity of an instrument – it also poses a threat to patient safety by creating a hiding space for bacteria and debris.

Pro: Lasers can place marks on a wider variety of instruments, such as ones with smaller shafts or less open space.

Con: Laser marks may erode over time and, like electrochemical marks, can sometimes be removed by buffing during maintenance or repair.

Marking tape or dots (mechanical)

Depending on your inventory, you may have instruments that aren’t suited for a laser or ECM mark due to their material, shape or size. Marking tape or dots can come in handy in these situations and are safe for sterilization.

Pro: Tape and dots are a cheap and easy way to mark instruments that can’t be marked with other methods.

Con: These marks don’t last as long as surgical instrument marking techniques such as a laser or ECM.

Benefits of labeling surgical instruments vs. trays

If you’re considering implementing a new surgical instrument identification solution, another important decision you’ll need to make is whether you want to track trays or individual instruments. While tracking surgical assets at the tray or container level provides clear traceability and visibility of sets, it lacks the valuable data and detailed level of accountability gained when tracking individual instruments.

Both the time and financial investment for instrument-level labeling might be higher up front, but the long-term benefits are unmatched compared to tray labeling and tracking. Here are a few key differences between the two.

Tray labeling solutions

  • Only requires trays to be labeled, therefore only trays can be tracked
  • Any instrument can be matched to any tray
  • Easier to adopt for first-time labelers and trackers
  • Unable to provide historical data on where individual instruments were used
  • Can track a tray back to a patient but not the instruments that were used
  • Pose a liability threat for facilities if a patient is compromised by an instrument that is untraceable
  • Unable to track down missing instruments when they are separated from their trays

Instrument-level labeling solutions

  • Provide complete visibility into where every instrument in a facility’s inventory has ever been used, improving workflow efficiency and patient safety
  • Make it easier to identify which asset is at fault if an outbreak or infection occurs
  • Make it easier to quickly locate specialized instruments for a particular case
  • Identify allowable substitutions for instruments that aren’t available
  • Provide real-time data to inform maintenance schedules
  • Make it easier to find instruments involved in a recall
  • Can present a learning curve for technicians
  • Often requires a larger financial investment

How CensiMark can help

CensiMark is a surgical instrument marking solution that provides the most comprehensive range of options – including laser, electrochemical and mechanical marking. With CensiMark, you receive marking services, training and commissioning of the instruments into your system. The service is also scalable so you can mark instruments at your own pace.

To further increase its strength, efficiency and accountability, CensiMark can be paired with CensiTrac, the industry’s most capable and comprehensive surgical instrument tracking system that can be built to implement directly into your facility’s existing ecosystem. This software combination can alert technicians when a tray is incomplete or has the wrong instrument added to it, ensuring that trays are assembled correctly and in the right order to avoid delays in the operating room.

Learn more about CensiMark, CensiTrac and Censis’s other solutions here.