Do you ever stop and fully appreciate those sterile instruments sitting on your backtable? What level of inspection went into ensuring that every instrument was clean, sterile, and safe to use? Who was the expert responsible for delivering a safe product to your operating room?
Without the experts in Sterile Processing, many departments within the hospital would come to a grinding halt - including the Operating Room. To say that we have a symbiotic relationship is an understatement; we need the folks in Sterile Processing.
What we've learned...
A quick glance at the history of surgery shows us that, although many advances were made in the understanding of human anatomy and surgical procedures over time, prior to the discovery of germ theory and antisepsis in the late 1800's, patients were very likely to die after having surgery. And the most likely cause of their death? Infection.
"Joseph Lister, an English surgeon (pictured at right), combined Louis Pasteur's discovery of bacteria with his own expertise in microscopy and knowledge of surgical wounds. The result was the greatest breakthrough in the history of surgery: antisepsis." (1)
Lister's careful study and observation of bacteria brought him to the conclusion that "germ-laden particles" were contaminating surgical wounds. He later "discovered that the same microbes were also found on instruments, sponges and towels used during a surgical operation, and even on a surgeon's hands." (1) Lister determined that a method was necessary to prevent and destroy these germs so that they wouldn't be introduced into surgical incisions.
His method involved the use of carbolic acid. He used it in surgical dressings, he sprayed it into the air around a surgical table, he dipped his hands in it, and he sprayed his instruments with it prior to operating. (1)
This first step in preventing contamination and infection with chemical antisepsis was a breakthrough in patient care and surgical outcomes. As Lister's techniques became more widely known and accepted, infection rates after surgery began to improve. Surgeons realized that removing microorganisms prior to a surgical procedure, and (eventually) maintaining a sterile environment were keys to surgical success.
It's interesting to note that the realization that microbes were present on instrumentation occured at the same time as Lister's studies on other items used during an operation (i.e. sponges and towels). Instruments weren't an afterthought. Their antisepsis was crucial to infection prevention and operative success.
Which brings me back to today. We now know more than Joseph Lister did, but we do have him to thank for pioneering the methods used to prevent infection. But, what hasn't changed in over 150 years, is the absolute necessity of clean and/or sterile instruments for the success of an operation.
I'll say it again!
Those of us in the Operating Room need the experts in Sterile Processing. Without their expertise and commitment, where would we be? The next time you open a container, and you have a gleaming tray full of clean and sterile instruments, don't forget to appreciate the expertise that went into getting that tray onto your backtable.
We're often quick to complain, but rarely recognize how many trays arrive, day in and day out, in optimal condition, safe for patient care. Take a minute today to appreciate the hard work that makes your work possible and thank your Sterile Processing Department. They deserve it!
If you're looking for more ways to recognize and honor your Sterile Processing Department, check out Beyond Clean's Sterile Processing Week Page!
Until next time,
1. Rutkow, Ira. Empire of the Scalpel: The History of Surgery, Scribner, New York, New York, 2022, pp. 141-147