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Dental Sterilization Technician

Dental sterilization technicians: "Basic" role or crucial team member?

May 2, 2023
Dental practices are looking for creative ways to solve staffing issues. But ignoring the importance of trained sterilization technicians can compromise patient safety, warns infection control expert Michelle Strange.

“If you are not already operating efficiently, you’re just bringing people into a broken system, and you’re missing out on their full potential." —Nick Sonnenberg

With the ever-increasing staffing shortage in dentistry, it can be tempting to look for ways to fill the gaps in the workforce. However, deprioritizing or not acknowledging the educational needs for the role of a dental sterilization technician is not appropriate. Such a move would compromise the quality of patient care, which should always be kept at the forefront of any decision-making process.

A recent article called "Practice production, prioritized: Hiring a sterilization assistant,” highlighted a potential role of a sterilization technician/assistant in the dental practice.1 The article proposes hiring a sterilization assistant to enhance the practice's efficiency and profitability without requiring the comprehensive education needed for dental assistants.

Hiring and comprehensively training a sterilization technician in place of assigning these duties to, for example, a dental assistant, can be an appropriate response to staffing issues if done correctly. However, dentistry has historically not valued the importance of infection control protocol, and downplaying the training needed for this position negatively impacts patient safety and team dynamics.

What is a sterilization technician?

Dental sterilization technicians are typically responsible for running the sterilization area in a dental practice (e.g., sorting, cleaning, decontamination, and sterilization), performing assurance testing, and maintaining documentation and equipment. Sterilization technicians may also be responsible for cleaning and preparing operatories, and sometimes perform other clerical duties in a practice.

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Since the role of a sterilization technician does not demand formal education, it presents an optimal solution to tackle staffing shortages. While there is truth to that sentiment, it is essential to recognize that sterilization technicians have the responsibility of cleaning and sterilizing all instruments used in the practice, as well as ensuring surfaces are properly disinfected between patients.

These tasks necessitate appropriate training and education. Sterilization technicians play a crucial role in dental offices, and suggesting, as the Levin article does, that they do not need much education or training for the job is inaccurate.

Does dentistry take infection control seriously?

Infection control is essential in any medical setting, and dental practices are no exception. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has published guidelines for infection prevention in dental settings, emphasizing the importance of proper sterilization and disinfection practices.2 To deprioritize the training of sterilization technicians is to compromise patient safety.

It can be argued that dentistry has not maintained the same infection prevention standards and patient safety practices as many health-care systems, primarily due to the lack of equivalent oversight. Our industry frequently downplays the importance of infection prevention, often viewing recommendations from the CDC and OSHA as inconveniences and insignificant.

In dental practices, pathogens can be transmitted through direct contact with blood, oral fluids, or contaminated instruments and surfaces.2 Proper education or training for sterilization technicians is essential to ensure they fully understand the importance of their role and can execute it effectively.

Sterilization technicians as infection control coordinators

The CDC recommends that every dental practice have an infection control coordinator, a vital role. The sterilization technician could potentially hold this title, but would need appropriate, ongoing education. This person is responsible for developing, implementing, and monitoring infection prevention policies and procedures and ensuring compliance with regulatory standards.3 A well-trained infection control coordinator can identify potential risks and implement measures to minimize infection transmission, ultimately protecting patients, staff, and the dental practice's reputation.

Team dynamics

The Levin article also mentioned the idea that dental assistants might mistreat sterilization assistants. This claim is both disrespectful and baseless.

As well, any signs of belittlement or disregard for the role of sterilization technicians may be a red flag for the lack of a safety culture within the dental office. A strong safety culture emphasizes open communication, collaboration, and respect among team members, which ultimately leads to better patient outcomes and staff well-being.4 Dental practices should prioritize fostering such a culture by promoting teamwork, continuous education, and regular communication among team members.5 By doing so, dental practices can ensure that all team members, including sterilization technicians, feel valued and supported, contributing to a positive work environment and improved patient care.

Fully valuing the role of sterilization technician can also benefit the practice financially in other ways:

Costs of breaches

The costs of infection control breaches can be significant, with potential consequences including harm to patients, loss of trust, litigation, and regulatory penalties.6 Additionally, inadequate infection control practices can lead to costly equipment repairs or replacements. By prioritizing patient safety and infection control, dental practices can retain patients and maintain expensive dental equipment, contributing to the overall success and reputation of the practice.

Building patient trust

Patient expectations have evolved in recent years, with an increased focus on the cleanliness and safety of healthcare environments. Patients are more likely to trust and return to a dental practice demonstrating a solid commitment to infection control and prevention, contributing to patient satisfaction and loyalty.

Building efficiencies in the practice

In addition to dental practices' ethical and legal responsibilities to ensure patient safety, there are financial incentives for investing in infection control education. Well-trained sterilization technicians contribute to a more efficient workflow, allowing dental professionals to focus on patient care and treatment. A properly managed infection control program can also reduce costs associated with equipment repair, replacement, and potential litigation arising from infection control breaches.

What training do sterilization technicians need?

Continuing education and professional development should be encouraged and facilitated for all dental team members, including sterilization technicians. Organizations such as the Organization for Safety, Asepsis and Prevention (OSAP) and the American Dental Assistants Association (ADAA) offer infection control courses and resources, which can help sterilization technicians stay up to date on the latest best practices and regulatory requirements.

By prioritizing proper education and training for sterilization technicians, dental practices demonstrate their commitment to patient safety and the well-being of their staff. This commitment not only results in better patient outcomes and a safer work environment but also contributes to the long-term success and reputation of the dental practice. The key lies in investing in continuous education and professional development for all team members, including sterilization technicians, to ensure that high standards of care and infection control are upheld.

Balancing staffing and safety

Dental practices must balance the need for staffing with the responsibility to provide a safe and effective care environment. Cutting corners on the education and training of sterilization technicians is not the right place to compromise, as it can have significant repercussions on patient safety, staff well-being, and the overall reputation of the dental practice. Instead, dental offices should prioritize and invest in the continuous education and professional development of all team members, including sterilization assistants, to maintain high care and infection control standards.

In summary, the importance of sterilization assistants and their proper education cannot be overstated. Dental practices can ensure the highest infection control and prevention standards by investing in their training and fostering a supportive and collaborative work environment. This, in turn, leads to improved patient outcomes, a safer work environment, and the practice's long-term success.

References

  1. Levin RP. Practice production, prioritized: Hiring a sterilization assistant. Dental Economics. March 20, 2023. https://www.dentaleconomics.com/practice/article/14289622/practice-production-prioritized-hiring-a-sterilization-assistant
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Summary of Infection Prevention Practices in Dental Settings: Basic Expectations for Safe Care. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US Dept of Health and Human Services; October 2016.
  3. Organization for Safety, Asepsis, and Prevention. Dental Infection Prevention and Control: Responsibilities of the Infection Prevention Coordinator. 2018. https://www.osap.org/page/DAResponsibilities
  4. Bloodborne pathogens. Standard: 1910.1030. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. United States Department of Labor. https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/regulations/standardnumber/1910/1910.1030
  5. American Dental Association. The benefits of team dentistry. 2016. https://www.ada.org/~/media/ADA/Publications/Files/ADA%20White%20Paper%20on%20Team%20Dentistry.ashx
  6. Glick M. The cost of infection control: A practice management perspective. Compendium of Continuing Education in Dentistry. 2017. https://www.aegisdentalnetwork.com/cced/2017/06/the-cost-of-infection-control-a-practice-management-perspective