Aug 30, 2021 | Article

The Future of SPD Education is Small, but Mighty

How Content Delivery Will Change the Way Technicians Learn

  1. Identify the current methods of SPD education
  2. Learn how technology is changing and shaping the education delivery in the sterile processing field
  3. Define how new methods of education could make an impact in your SPD department

What does industry education look like for a Sterile Processing professional in 2021? How has this changed in recent years and what do the next 5-10 years of industry transition look like for new technicians, current employees, and educators in the medical device reprocessing space? To answer these questions, we’ll first dive into the traditional models of Sterile Processing education to give you an idea of how most of us got started and then spend the rest of this article outlining the exciting educational future that is likely in store for us.

Current State of SPD Education: Sterile Processing Training Schools

Getting started in the Sterile Processing profession can be daunting. A quick Google search may bring up all kinds of credentials and certifications associated with the job, different requirements for different job postings, and even different laws regarding certifications, depending on the state in which you are looking to work. This overwhelming amount of information causes many aspiring technicians to search out local training schools where they can get straight answers and a structured roadmap for how someone can get into this growing profession.

Since there are no required college degrees for entry level Sterile Processing technicians, these training schools typically offer courses that prepare students to sit for one of two standardized certification exams – either the IAHCSMM CRCST exam or the CBSPD CSPDT exam. Both exams are recognized in the industry and measure entry level knowledge necessary to begin a career in the field. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of these schools met in person at local community colleges or technical schools, or were run by private instructors in the area. Post-pandemic, many of these training opportunities are now available remotely as well, and typically run anywhere from 12 weeks to 9 months. While the cost of these training schools can vary substantially across the country, a typical range is around $1500 up to $12,000 for a Sterile Processing prep course.

Current State of SPD Education: On The Job Training

Since Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Tennessee are the only states to currently require certification of Sterile Processing technicians by law, many hospitals around the US still utilize on-the-job training (OJT) as a means to educate new technicians into the industry. The particulars of these hospital-specific training programs vary widely, but they typically include general department on-boarding and personalized training with experienced staff known as “Preceptors” to slowly introduce the employee to the various aspects of working in a Sterile Processing department, including decontamination, instrument inspection, assembly, & packaging, sterilization, documentation, storage, and supply maintenance.

Some departments have dedicated Educators on staff who manage the OJT program for their departments and may provide more structured training on the complex aspects of microbiology, regulatory compliance, manufacturer instructions for use (IFUs), and related topics. While on the job learning never really ends, the initial career orientation that happens in these kinds of programs usually takes anywhere from 3 – 12 months. If a department requires certification of their new technicians, they often give them around 18 – 24 months to learn the job and successfully pass the exam.

Current State of SPD Education: Textbook (Self-Study) Certification

For certain professionals the idea of sitting in a classroom does not sound enticing, but you may still want to gain the valuable knowledge that comes through studying for an industry certification (not to mention the credentials you get at the end of it all). Both certification organizations in the industry allow you to purchase the certification textbook materials directly and study at your own pace. Once you feel confident in the content, you can then schedule a time to sit for the final certification exam, without needing to enroll in any outside training school. Importantly, if you go the self-study route, there are important rules around mandatory worked hours and department sign-offs that may be required prior to you receiving your full certification. Check with the specific organization you are studying through for details around that process.

Current State of SPD Education: In-Person & Virtual Conferences

One of the best opportunities for networking in Sterile Processing today happens during industry conferences and seminars, both in-person and virtually. There are conference opportunities at the national, regional, and even facility-level that bring together multiple educators to present on topics that can cover the full spectrum of department life. Conference events provide invaluable networking opportunities for you to meet other technicians or department leaders who are facing similar challenges or have developed unique solutions to processes you may still be struggling with. If you are a member of a regional professional organization, you can bring many of these same speakers to your events for a more tailored discussion on the topics that are closer to home. In addition to providing great education and networking, these events also provide important contact hours or continuing education units (CEUs) which are necessary to renew your industry certifications.

Current State of SPD Education: Magazine & Print Materials

Prior to the advent of the internet and continuing in the years since, industry magazines and periodicals have played an important role in informing Sterile Processing professionals about new studies, products, and regulatory updates. A few of these publications are wholly dedicated to our industry, while many others include Sterile Processing as a part of the larger conversations around medical devices, surgical services, supply chain, and infection control. Some magazines and newsletters even offer CE-approved self-study guides for readers to complete and return for certification credit. One unique function of these magazines are ongoing question & answer columns written by industry experts where readers can send in their department questions and have them answered in a later issue of the publication.

How Technology Has Changed Education Delivery in Sterile Processing

While there is nothing inherently wrong with how education has been historically delivered in this industry, new media (such as social media platforms, podcasts, mobile applications, etc.) has opened up a completely new world of opportunities for reaching frontline technicians with industry education.

One of the most powerful platforms we have seen impact the Sterile Processing space have been social media networks such as Facebook, Linkedin, and even Instagram. The sheer speed at which content can now come into the industry and the viral nature of creatively packaged education on social media has created a massive demand on the part of technicians for constant streams of information, insight, and perspective on the topics they face in their departments. Magazines typically are only published once a month and major conferences may only come once a year, social media can be (and often is) updated multiple times a day with new and interesting topics about medical device reprocessing. The demand for online content is still far higher than the supply, so this trend does not appear to be slowing down any time soon.

Related to this hunger for social media content is the explosion of Sterile Processing focused podcasts, such as Beyond Clean, which bring subject matter expertise and experience to content-rich interviews that highlight different themes facing the reprocessing industry. In just a few short years we have gone from no industry-related podcasts available to more than ten regularly releasing in various styles, lengths, and CE-approved offerings from every corner of the country and even around the globe. The unique opportunity that audio-based education such as podcasts provide is the ability for Sterile Processing professionals to consume content while they are doing other things – such as driving, walking, and even while working in their departments. This ability to multi-task while also learning was never available with the traditional models of industry education as discussed in the introduction to this article.

These new platforms have resulted in an important, though often overlooked, shift in how education is both delivered and consumed by frontline technicians today. The most helpful phrase to describe this shift may be “mini-education.” This is the idea that social media has trained consumers to take in information now in bite-sized chunks, rather than in full, one hour presentations that would have been the primary means of educating Sterile Processing technicians in the past. The huge success and ongoing growth of online groups which engage in this type of mini-education is evidence of the appeal this model has on many professionals in our space. Additionally, departments have begun to make use of this same concept of mini-education in how they actively verify and reinforce their technician’s competency on a regular basis. Rather than waiting until the end of the year for a multi-hour review of every department competency, new workflow management software allows leaders and educators to hardwire mini-competency checks into the everyday life of their department staff. Upon logging in to the decontamination area, for instance, a technician can quickly review two or three competency points prior to beginning their work for the day. This is just one example, but the potential for this type of mini-training is almost limitless.

Another interesting innovation in education delivery for our industry falls under the label of “gamification” – which is basically the conversion of content or education into an interactive, game-like format which allows users to directly engage with the content while learning. There has been a ton of attention given to gamification outside of the Sterile Processing world, so it should be no surprise we are starting to see this model creep in to our corner of the healthcare universe as well. Examples of this can be seen in the growing utilization of quiz-platforms such as “Kahoots” during Sterile Processing conference sessions, or creative integrations of popular gameshows such as “Jeopardy” during department in-services.

How Will These Shifts Impact How Technicians Learn in the Future?

The exciting thing about technology is that it can impact industries very quickly. That also happens to be the frightening thing about technology for many people! But you shouldn’t fear anything mentioned in this article because each one of those new delivery models above – social media, podcasts, mini-education, and gamification – are already having a tremendously positive impact on the engagement and critical thinking of our frontline technicians across the country. But there are at least four areas where there is yet more opportunity for these educational shifts to continue growing:

Onboarding: Whereas the success of onboarding new technicians in the past has been largely up to the skill of particular preceptors and department educators, the influx of educational content pipelines will allow for endless opportunities for curious trainees to find and consume as much education as they can handle on any given topic. The importance of in-person preceptors will never go away, but now these preceptors can recommend their favorite podcast episodes on sterilization recalls and reference helpful infographics they have seen through a social media page to which they are subscribed. Since this educational content is so often bite-size, new employees can quickly observe, ask questions, review, and then follow-up for additional insight during their regular onboarding activities.

Continuing Education: As alluded to above, the world of approved continuing education in Sterile Processing has drastically shifted with the growing use of social media, webinars, mobile applications, and related technologies. No longer must a technician attend a conference or sit through an extended in-service to consume content that counts as contact hours for their certification. Now they can review a series of posts on Facebook, listen to a podcast, watch a live stream panel discussion on Linkedin, take a multiple choice identification quiz online, or complete a competency review within their tracking system – all of which can count toward renewing their credentials. This trend of content diversity will continue as additional platforms are utilized for high-quality, educational delivery.

Technical & Leadership Advancement: Some of the most engaged Sterile Processing content on social media are educational series which focus on technical skills and career advancement in the industry. These are often round table discussions with current leaders and/or YouTube videos explaining career tips such as resume writing, interview skills, and dealing with drama in your department. In the past, this content was sometimes difficult to find and often only available through paid seminars or subscription fees. With the growing number of content creators from every level and background in the Sterile Processing industry, this educational content is now wide-spread and impacting future leaders across the country.

Vendor Learning: While vendors (and their education) isn’t necessarily the responsibility of Sterile Processing departments, the more they know about our processes, the better partners they are able to be for us. Because our industry is now pumping so much content directly out from the frontlines, vendors have never had a better opportunity to get a pulse on what our challenges, pain points, and needs for improvement may be. Not only that, since social media is a collaborative affair, our vendors can directly engage with us in a more casual context, rather than shouting over steam autoclaves and rumbling washers.

So, where does all this technological shifting leave us? All signs are showing that the size of educational content delivered to our technicians will continue to compact into smaller, more value-laden mini-education content pieces that can be consumed and engaged with in a diversity of ways. Audio-based will continue its meteorite rise in popularity, and we will see it take on other creative forms to both deliver and receive information directly from users in the field. Competency verification and educational reinforcement will be a huge focus for technologies which directly interface with department users, and gamification will likely continue to gain ground in unique and exciting ways. If you have any doubt in what the future holds, look at where, how, and with what the 18-25 year olds in our industry are engaging when it comes to Sterile Processing content. You won’t find a lot of them reading industry journals, but every single one will have a smart phone in their pocket. If we want to reach them, it will have to be there.

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