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Keeping Things Sterile: Best Practices for Cleaning Medical Equipment

Marc Kaplan


Preventing infection in healthcare saves lives and money. The potential for infection decreases when you have sterile medical equipment.

Around 1.7 million Health Associated Infections (HAIs) happen every year in U.S. hospitals. These infections result in about 99,000 deaths. The cost to healthcare is about $20 billion in healthcare each year.

By taking proper steps to sterilize medical equipment, we reduce cross-contamination between uses. Fresh, sterile equipment is essential for all patient care. 

You need sterile equipment when using items from a personal first aid kit. And patients trust you are using sterile instruments in a clinic or hospital.

But how do you sterilize equipment? Follow best practices when cleaning medical equipment. 

What is Sterilization?

Sterilization is a cleaning process that destroys bacteria, viruses, and fungi. These microorganisms sit on the surfaces of reusable instruments. These medical instruments come in contact with the body.

Without proper sterilization instruments still contain harmful microorganisms that cause infection. The instruments might look clean on the surface. But microscopic pieces of tissue, blood, and other biological debris remain. 

Reusable medical instruments include our doctor's stethoscope, surgical forceps, endoscopes, scalpels, and more. 

Beyond Disinfection

Disinfecting medical equipment is a good start. But it's not enough when you need complete sterilization. 

The process of disinfection eliminates many or all dangerous microorganisms. But it doesn't get rid of bacteria. Without thorough sterilization, you're leaving yourself or patients open to infection. 

Cleaning and disinfection take place before sterilization. Using hospital-grade disinfectants removes many levels of contaminants. 

But don't rely on disinfection alone. Disinfection doesn't sterilize equipment for use on another patient. Your medical instruments still need sterilization. 

Single-Use Instruments

You should not need to sterilize medical equipment intended only for single use. These instruments should arrive sterilized at your facility. 

As long as the packaging remains sealed before use, the instrument is sterile for one use only. Use it and discard it according to medical waste removal standards. 

Reusing single-use devices or instruments creates the opportunity for infection in patients. 

Processing Medical Devices for Reuse

Sterilization goes beyond disinfection. Any reusable medical device that has contact with body tissues or fluids is a "critical" item. These items need sterilization. 

The process uses heat, pressure, hydrogen peroxide gas plasma, EtO gas, or liquid chemicals. These methods get rid of all dangerous microorganisms from medical instruments. 

There are several CDC-recommended ways to sterilize medical equipment. Some of the most common methods include: 

  • Steam Sterilization: This is the most commonly used way to sterilize equipment. This method uses pressurized moist heat in the form of saturated steam under pressure. This steam process sterilizes instruments. 

  • EtO Gas Sterilization:  EtO gas is a flammable, explosive, and colorless gas. It sterilizes medical equipment without damaging the material used in the devices. But, it has a few downsides.

    Sterilization with EtO requires a long cycle time. It's also expensive. If not used in the right way, it is hazardous to patients and staff.

  • Flash Sterilization: This is a modified method of steam sterilization. It uses pre-vacuum, gravity, or steam-flush pressure-pulse. Instruments sit in an open tray or a special container to allow for rapid penetration of steam.

    There are some concerns about the effectiveness of this method. Because of this, it's primarily used for clean patient-care items. These items aren't packaged, sterilized, or stored before use.

  • Hydrogen Peroxide Gas Plasma: Hydrogen peroxide vapor enters a chamber holding medical instruments. This vapor exposes all instrument to the sterilant. This initiates the process of killing microorganisms.

    A radio frequency creates an electrical field. This makes a gas plasma from the hydrogen peroxide. At the end of the process, instruments are safe to handle and use.

  • Peracetic Acid Sterilization: This is a common method used in the United States. An automated machine uses the acid to sterilize surgical, medical, and dental instruments. A computer controls this low-temperature sterilization method. 

  • Dry-Heat Sterilizers: Use dry heat for instruments that might become damaged from moist-heat. Dry heat is non-toxic and safe for patients and staff. But it's a time-consuming process. 

Choose the most appropriate method for the equipment to ensure proper sterilization.

Follow Procedures to Ensure Proper Sterilization

It's critical to follow all procedures per CDC recommendations. This helps ensure the safety of all patients. 

Sterilizing instruments for reuse is a labor-intensive, detailed, and time-consuming process. It's also prone to errors.

Be sure you have dedicated staff responsible for all steps in the process. Provide proper and ongoing training for sterilization procedures.

Make sure you have plenty of equipment available for any method you use. 

You'll also need to confirm equipment sterilization. Document that the recommended sterilization process results in sterilized equipment every time. 

Periodically test all methods to ensure validity. This involves putting a contaminated test device through the cleaning and sterilization process. After the process is complete, test it to see any contaminants left on the device.

If the test device doesn't pass as adequately sterilized, review procedures and personnel. Consult guidelines provided by the CDC for best results. 

Sterilization is More Than Cleaning Medical Equipment

Cleaning medical equipment for reuse is the first step to proper sterilization. You must also disinfect and sterilize before using them with patients. 

You don't want to cause an infection in a patient during a hospital stay. Patients suffer enough while in the hospital for treatment of other conditions.

We can reduce the instances of Health Associated Infection by sterilizing medical equipment. Not only do we save lives by following sterilization protocol. We reduce liability for hospitals and other medical facilities.

When sterilizing equipment, it's essential to use the best products for the job. Once the equipment is sterile, it's important to keep them sterile until use.

But supplies don't have to be expensive to maintain a sterile environment. Save Rite Medical offers the sterile products you need. From medical gloves to drapes to labeling for sterile items--we can help. 

Shop our products by category or manufacturer. Contact us with any questions. We serve individuals, physicians, and hospitals.