por Lisa Chamoff
, Contributing Reporter | February 20, 2015
From the January/February issue of HealthCare Business News magazine
Ebola may have highlighted the critical role sterilization plays in a modern hospital for civilians, but for health care professionals, the importance and challenge of meeting the ceaseless demands in a modern facility have long been understood.
To that end, industry veterans and newcomers alike have responded with novel takes on old designs, concepts and automation straight out of high-tech manufacturing, and a trend toward pushing speed, customization, and a reduction of the physical burden of those involved in the process, all while finding ways to boost efficiency and cut costs without sacrificing safety.
In fact, some manufacturers of medical equipment are even turning to offsite sterilization contractors, though that approach is not currently feasible for most hospitals and health care providers.
A good example of the new direction for this critical part of the health care process is the sterile processing department at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle.
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During a recent remodeling completed over the summer, the department’s leaders sought to find equipment that would increase throughput and facilitate flow, using the principles of lean manufacturing taken from the Toyota Production System. This philosophy is in play throughout the entire hospital where, for example, employees are encouraged to report problems and defects without fear of repercussions. In Virginia Mason’s sterile processing department, it led to the purchase of pass-through Belimed washers and sterilizers that automatically load and unload, saving precious time and taking some of the physical burden off staff.
“Labor, obviously, is the most expensive part of everyone’s budget,” says Sam Luker, the director of sterile processing at Virginia Mason. “If you can get the equipment to work for you, you’re really going to be saving on FTEs and enhancing ergonomics for your team members, who are no longer going to have to load and unload those sterilizers.”
In fact, Luker notes that labor represents approximately 65 percent of his annual budget. “Designing principles of lean into the department remodel has resulted in operational, work flow, and equipment efficiencies that have helped reduce our labor expense by 8 percent,” Luker says.
Before, his staff had to push heavy loads of stainless steel surgical instruments manually into the autoclaves, work that could lead to injury. Now, Luker says, “our team members have more time to focus on instrument set assembly and inspection while the automated sterilizers load and unload themselves.