Working in a sterile processing area (SPD) requires a technician to take on multi-dimensional tasks and responsibilities that require specific knowledge and skills, including an understanding of the following:

  • Cleaning, decontamination, packaging, and sterilization of surgical instrumentation

  • Processing and reprocessing of reusable medical devices

  • Cleaning, testing, assembly, and distribution of movable patient care equipment

  • The facility's purchasing procedures

  • Storage, handling, and distribution of sterile surgical instrumentation and devices, as well as inventory control and cost recovery systems

The nature of the work performed in SPD means that patient and personnel safety is paramount. Sterile processing practices are highly regulated.


What exactly is the role of the SPD technician? First, one needs to understand what SPD does. SPD is the department that receives, cleans, decontaminates, assembles, disinfects, and/or sterilizes reusable medical and surgical devices for safe and effective patient care. Depending on the healthcare facility, the department might be designated Central Services, Central Supply, Central Sterile Supply, Sterile Processing, Material Services, or another name. It has been recommended by several organizations, including the Certification Board for Sterile Processing and Distribution, Inc. (CBSPD), that the department be called Sterile Processing to reflect the majority of the work done in the present-day department.

In a hospital setting, SPD is usually divided into separate areas according to the functions performed within each area. These areas can include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Decontamination area, where soiled items are received and cleaned. In a hospital setting, there might be a dedicated elevator or dumbwaiter used to transport contaminated items from the OR, L&D, and/or nursing units to the SPD decontamination area. If there is not a dedicated system, a transport method must be developed for the safe transport of contaminated items from the using department to the decontamination area.

  • Preparation and packaging area, where cleaned items are inspected, assembled, and packaged. This area is often within the sterilization area, but it could be separate and distinct. It might also be called a "clean work room."

  • High-level disinfection room or area, where cleaned items are high-level disinfected and then passed to the preparation and packaging (clean) area of the department for storage.

  • Sterilization area, where terminal sterilization is performed. There might be a separate sterilization room or area for ethylene oxide (EO) sterilization. There might also be a segregated area for holding steam sterilizer carts after they have been removed from the steam sterilizer to permit cooling of items away from high-traffic areas.

  • Sterile storage area, where sterile items are stored until needed. This area is used to store sterile items received from outside vendors, sterile items processed on site, or both. The location of the area where sterile medical/surgical supplies are stored and distributed varies with the facility.

  • Sterile stores, where items for patient care from outside manufacturers are stored. This area might be a completely separate area, or it might be within the sterile storage area, depending on the size of the facility. "Sterile stores" is sometimes referred to as Medical Supply Distribution, Central Supply, or a similar designation.

  • Case cart area, where sterile supplies (trays and/or sterile items from outside manufacturers) are kept and picked for surgical cases. This area might be within the sterile storage area.

  • Dispatch, where sterile and clean items are dispensed. There is usually a window through which the items are dispatched to the transporter.

  • Loaner area for the receipt and return of instruments borrowed for specialty procedures. Although such an area is not a requirement, many SPDs are now providing a separate room or space for loaner instruments.

  • Patient care equipment clean-up area, where patient care equipment is cleaned and disinfected. There might be a separate area designated for this purpose. There is usually a separate area for storage of cleaned and disinfected equipment.

Regardless of the specific scope of its work in a given facility, SPD is responsible for providing dependable, reliable services to enhance the quality of patient care. In other words, instrument sets, patient care equipment, and other medical devices must be processed and distributed in an accurate and timely manner so that patient care is not adversely affected. The important work performed in SPD permits surgeons to perform surgery and patients to heal. It has been said that the department is "the heart of the hospital." Any healthcare facility would find it difficult to function even for a few hours without SPD.

In an ambulatory surgery facility, the setup is usually similar to, but smaller than, a hospital setting. The decontamination area is separate from the preparation and packaging area. The sterilizers are usually located in the preparation and packaging area. There is usually a separate sterile storage area, but sterile trays and sets are sometimes stored in closed cabinets within the operating rooms (ORs) or the preparation and packaging area.

The MOST important part of being a sterile processing worker is to care about the patients. The work is challenging due to the high work volume and sometimes high stress (we have to deal with emergencies all the time) however, in my 50+ years of nursing, it is the MOST rewarding work I have done. This is because sterile processing technicians affect every patient in the facility which is significant.

If you have family constraints, you can take the sterile processing Ambulatory Surgery course and work in an Ambulatory Surgery center. These centers do not require weekends, holidays or off-shifts. However the type of instruments and sterilizers are similar.

I know you will find sterile processing very rewarding because you are really helping patients. We might not be directly in the Operating Room, but the instruments we prepared certainly are.

If you do not currently work in a hospital or Ambulatory Surgery facility, it is recommended that you volunteer some of your time at such a facility to put your book knowledge to practice with hands-on experience.

There are HUNDREDS of sterile processing technician job openings all over the country so employment is not an issue!

We are here to assist you to become successful.

Nancy Chobin, RN, CSPM, CFER
Sterile Processing University, LLC

SPD Technician Course Page

Ambulatory Surgery Technician Course Page