Steam sterilization goes a long way in keeping medical equipment clean and safe
Health-associated infections (HAIs) are a perpetual problem in the medical industry, affecting upwards of 1.7 million patients and causing 99,000 deaths every year. The COVID-19 pandemic has also created new challenges when it comes to preventing the virus from spreading throughout a facility that is tending to affected patients.
Comprehensive sterilization procedures and protocols in place can help prevent HAIs, and that’s where hospital steam sterilizers come in. Here’s how they clean hospital medical equipment to maintain patients’ health and safety.
Disinfection vs. Sterilization
Disinfection is defined as “a process that eliminates many or all pathogenic microorganisms except for bacterial spores, primarily on inanimate surfaces.” This is what most average individuals think of when they spray their countertops or doorknobs down with Lysol or other commercially available products. While it is useful during flu season and now with the COVID-19 pandemic, it often isn’t enough in a medical setting.
Sterilization, on the other hand, is defined as “the process of making something free from bacteria or other living microorganisms.” The way each process treats bacteria is what differentiates them.
The terms disinfection and sterilization are often used interchangeably, but they are two different concepts. There are some situations where disinfection is sufficient, but others where full sterilization is necessary. Disinfection works to eliminate a large number of dangerous microorganisms, but it doesn’t get rid of potentially harmful bacteria that can cause infections. Disinfection should take place before sterilization, but it is not something that can exist in a void. Both steps are necessary to prevent HAIs and keep patients safe and healthy.
How Do Hospital Steam Sterilizers Work?
Steam sterilizers are the most common way of sterilizing reusable medical equipment. The practice of steam sterilization is completed inside an autoclave and is effective due to high temperatures. There are four components of steam sterilization: steam, pressure, temperature and time. Combining the four aspects works to kill all sorts of microorganisms, including bacteria and viruses. Most steam sterilization systems reach one of two operational temperatures — 250 F or 270 F.
The amount of time that reusable medical equipment needs to stay in a hospital steam sterilizer depends on the type of material — such as metal, rubber or plastic — whether the items are wrapped or unwrapped, and the precise make and model of the sterilizer.
Steam sterilization in an autoclave starts with air removal, creating a pressurized environment. The combination of heat, pressure and steam destroys microorganisms through the processes of irreversible coagulation, as well as the denaturation of enzymes and proteins.
Steam sterilization is necessary for reusable medical equipment, including stethoscopes, surgical forceps, scalpels and anything else that might be reused between patients. Single-use items and devices don’t need sterilization because they are designed to be discarded with regular medical waste. Most of these products wouldn’t withstand the high heat or pressure necessary for steam sterilization, so it’s safer for patients and medical professionals to simply discard them after use.
Other Forms of Sterilization
Steam sterilization may be the most common form of medical sterilization, but they aren’t the only option. EtO gas sterilization is another form of medical sterilization, but instead of using steam, it utilizes a colorless, flammable gas that can be explosive if not handled correctly. It’s effective because it works to sterilize equipment without damaging anything that might be sensitive to moisture, but it has a long cycle time and can be incredibly expensive. The flammability of the EtO gas also makes the process more dangerous, especially for untrained team members.
Hydrogen peroxide provides another sterilization method. It exposes vapor to an electrical field that creates gas plasma, which works to sterilize the equipment. Peracetic acid sterilization is a common low-temperature sterilization method used in the United Kingdom. There is no guesswork with this system, though, with an automated system handling every step of the procedure. Dry heat sterilizers are also used for items that might be damaged by moisture, but it’s a very slow process and remains inefficient for any equipment in high demand.
Establishing Sterilization Protocols
The sterilization process is only part of the equation. Establishing comprehensive protocols helps keep patients safe. There’s no point in putting equipment in a sterilizer if team members remove it with their bare hands or place it on an unsterilized countertop as soon as the cycle is complete.
Sterilization protocols don’t have to be complex, but they need to be comprehensive. It can be as simple as:
- Putting the instruments in the sterilizer and choosing the correct cycle
- Loading the sterilizer. Don’t overload
- Letting packages dry when the cycle is complete
- Allowing them cool before handling
- Ensuring that sterilization has occurred by checking packaging indicators
As long as the cycle has been completed successfully and the packaging indicators show sterilization has worked, that’s all there is to creating comprehensive sterilization protocols. Doing this properly goes a long way in preventing infections.
Keeping Patients Safe Takes Priority
Regardless of the type of practice or specialization, medical equipment sterilization is an essential component in preventing health-associated infections and keeping patients safe. It doesn’t take much to create a comprehensive sterilization protocol. The trick is to maintain them at all times. Missing one step or having a team member who doesn’t adhere to the protocols can have far-reaching consequences for patients and health care systems alike.
Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, a magazine exploring how innovations change our world. She has over 3 years experience writing articles in the industrial and tech sectors.