Whatever your opinions may be on federal and private company COVID19 vaccine mandates, there is something seismic happening in the Sterile Processing space right now that you should be paying close attention to. Allow me to paint the picture quickly, then spend some time fleshing out the potential implications.
What is happening NOW & why?
Even before President Biden issued his executive order regarding vaccine mandates for federal employees on September 9th, privately owned for-profit and not for-profit health systems around the US were already implementing their own vaccine requirements for the COVID19 virus tied to ongoing employment, with little to no potential for exemptions (religious or otherwise). The timing of these new requirements and (lack of) opportunity for exemption vary across the country, but market pressure will continue to drive compliance rates throughout the fall until the end of this year.
Sterile Processing is by no means the only slice of healthcare being impacted by these new requirements, and countless industries outside of healthcare are experiencing the same considerations and timelines. What is important to note about Sterile Processing however is:
There have been longstanding concerns around adequate/commensurate pay structures within the industry.
There was already a staffing shortage of qualified technicians prior to the pandemic, which has only been exacerbated since.
The barrier to entry is fairly low into the industry (few states require certification currently), which means the barrier (or hesitancy) to exit is fairly low as well.
Unlike many other healthcare roles and general business skills, the specialization of Sterile Processing professionals is not as easily transferable outside of a hospital setting (compared to other roles such as nursing, dietary, EVS).
There is no universally accepted and currently scaleable program for recruiting, training, and implementing a replacement workforce in Sterile Processing (ie. no universal technical training course).
Now let's take a moment to look at what all this means for our technicians, our industry, and anyone else who cares to pay attention.
What is the impact?
Simply put, we are seeing a rapidly increasing exodus of experienced, qualified Sterile Processing personnel completely exiting the industry. The reasons for this are not exclusively tied to disagreements over mandating the COVID19 vaccine, although that has been the driving catalyst for many of their decisions. Rather, the contributing factors listed in the bullet points above have now coalesced into a powerful argument that is pushing many of these professionals "over the (proverbial) fence." Below I have listed out the practical out-workings of these factors in light of the current exodus:
Due to the low pay structures for Sterile Processing technicians, there is even less "incentive" to remain in a role in light of a vaccine mandate with which these professionals may disagree.
Having worked the last 18 months (and more) under critical staffing challenges, with this dynamic only increasing due to the exodus mentioned above, Sterile Processing professionals have little hope for an improvement in staffing support in the near future. In light of this, many are using this mandate opportunity to opt out completely.
Tens of thousands of technicians around the US are not currently or are only recently certified in the field. With the lack of standardized certification requirements and low cost for certification application (approximately $125), little is holding these professionals in place as internal pressures push them out, and external job opportunities pull them out to compete for their valuable labor.
Currently, the reprocessing of surgical instruments are nearly exclusively being done within healthcare facilities (hospitals, clinics, ASCs, dental offices, etc). The few exceptions include third-party single-use device reprocessors and third-party off-site Sterile Processing service providers. This means that if a Sterile Processing professional decides to leave their current employer due to the factors mentioned above, there is literally no place else for them to go where they may not encounter the same dynamics and vaccine requirements. Thus, when they decide to leave, they are no longer remaining in the "Sterile Processing job market," they are subtracting themselves from it. // This impact is especially concerning since the primary means by which the industry has supported critical staffing needs in the past (interim-staffing / travelers), is also losing qualified candidates in droves, and for the same reasons.
Since there is no standardized pipeline for recruiting & training new employees in the Sterile Processing industry, health systems around the US are faced with a looming, localized challenge to compete for a qualified talent pool that is both shrinking in size, while at the same time rising in value(cost).
What are the opportunities?
With any dramatic industry shift like this, opportunities arise along with the challenges. Here's where I see the biggest windows opening up:
A Wealth of Available Sterile Processing Expertise
There has never been a better time to scoop up experienced Sterile Processing professionals than right now. If your company has a role (such as remote sales, customer support, data entry) which does not require the COVID19 vaccine, technicians, supervisors, managers, and directors are now flooding the job market with unique SPD experience which could be a huge recruiting win for your organization. Keep in mind that similar trends are happening for surgical technologists and OR nurses, so you will likely be able to tap into that valuable network as well.
The Explosion of Sterile Processing Entrepreneurship
One of the hardest steps to make as an entrepreneur is quitting your day job to "take the leap." What we are now seeing with this market exodus in Sterile Processing is a large number of these professionals who would have otherwise remained employed now out in the world with their ideas and a bunch of free time on their hands. I foresee us looking back on 2021 as the impetus for a number of new Sterile Processing entrepreneurs and disruptors who used this moment to take their dreams from ideas to innovation. If you own a business that seeks out these innovations to manufacture, distribute, or market Sterile Processing products, cast your net now to begin pulling these ideas in.
Off-Site Opportunities Ready for Lift Off
With all of these market factors impacting Sterile Processing departments in healthcare facilities (staffing shortages, non-competitive pay rates, mandated vaccines, temp-staffing shortages, lack of a recruiting/training pipeline), strategic off-site reprocessing programs have the clearest opportunities they've ever had to present as a viable, cost-effective solution for this slice of the healthcare conundrum. Hospitals will be forced to look for alternatives to meet the quality & volume needs of their facilities, so this could be the moment off-site reprocessing in the US has been waiting for to grab huge swaths of reprocessing market share.
Creative Disruption in Recruiting & Education
Finally, any short- or long-term solution for hospital Sterile Processing programs will require a new approach to recruiting & educating new technicians in a strategic play within their local job market. Compensation adjustments will have to play a large part in this, but so will educational programming, onboarding, and competency building that is able to capture the imagination of new technicians to bring them in and -- just as importantly -- keep them in these roles for extended periods of time. With competition pushing in from temp-staffing agencies paying the highest premium wages in history (some as high as $2600+/week) and growing off-site reprocessing programs, traditional staffing & recruiting models seen in hospital Sterile Processing departments will no longer be able to compete without real disruption.
The Real Loss
No matter what our solutions to this Sterile Processing staffing exodus may be, the reality is that we are not only losing bodies. We are, right this very moment, losing tens of thousands of years of combined Sterile Processing experience that cannot be replaced overnight. The impact this experience exodus will have on our industry is nearly impossible to measure or prophesy. What I can say is it will be felt and it will be costly, likely both in financial and qualitative terms.
Whatever your role in this industry, I advise you to sit up and pay attention. Change is coming.
Will you be ready?
Hank Balch © 2021
Hank Balch is the Founder and President of Beyond Clean. You can follow him on Instagram @WeFightDirty, and find his Fighting Dirty video series on YouTube. He is an international thought leader and has written over 150 other Sterile Processing articles and commentary, along with published articles in Becker's Hospital Review, Infection Control Today, AAMI News, AAMI BI&T Journal, Outpatient Surgery Magazine, and contributions to Healthcare Purchasing News. Hank's CS/SPD team in Louisville, KY was named the "2016 CS/SPD Department of the Year" by HPN. He has also served as the founding President of the South Texas Association of Sterile Processing Services and President of the Kentuckiana IAHCSMM Chapter, in additional to being nominated for the 2017 President-Elect & 2018 President-Elect of the International Association of Healthcare Central Service Materiel Management.