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Avoiding Common Communication Barriers in SPD

Communication is the process of sending and receiving messages through both verbal or nonverbal means, such as speech, writing, signs, signals, and behaviors. As humans we interact with one another in almost all that we do, and in today’s technology driven professional world of healthcare we have incorporated many digital means of communicating. However, that doesn’t take away from the importance of face-to-face verbal and interactive communication. Being aware of the challenges that come with communication, when working in such a fast-paced environment like sterile processing or patient procedure areas, can help frontline workers be more aware and effective. No two departments in a typical hospital work more closely together than the Sterile Processing Department (SPD) and the Operating Room (OR). The outcome of patients’ procedures depends on the effective collaboration, teamwork, and communication between personnel in these units. Today’s article focuses on things to be aware of, how to avoid certain challenges, and how to overcome barriers to successful communication when working in the fast-paced field of SP. 

Sterile processing technicians as well as many other healthcare professionals must have effective communication skills, and interpersonal skills (IAHCSMM, 2016). The world of healthcare is very labor intensive, and many advancements have been made in medical device design and the use of reprocessing equipment. These machines do not replace the need for human judgement, decision making and critical thinking, all of which require some form of communication and exchange of information. 

Sterile processing professionals must work with a variety of team members that includes their peers, leadership teams, physicians, personnel, and visitors throughout the hospital. These different communication paths require the use of both informal and formal communication. Sometimes handling difficult conversations, such as customer complaints, can be a common practice for SP professionals. There should be specific protocols in place and dedicated training that help to empower SP professionals so that handling service recovery situations allows them to resolve the complaints easily. 


Common Communication Barriers and Situations


Vague information sharing or lack of sharing the “Right” information. 

  • OR personnel or customers requesting things like “that one instrument that Dr. Smith used that one time.” This does not provide adequate information for the SP professional to make the right decision and provide what was requested.
  • Incomplete requests regarding priorities, or surgical schedules. 
  • Not providing thorough answers to questions, leading to further assumptions or lack of insights. 


The Use of Jargon and Expressions

  • Slang terms or nicknames used to describe the surgical inventory or instruments. 
  • Terminology used to describe items that are different between OR personnel or central supply personnel, such as supplies or medical supply descriptions. 


Key Terms and Definitions

  • Explanation of terms used throughout the department are different between the SP team and OR team which can be caused by a lack of collaboration or training.
  • Instrument inventory nomenclature is not aligned between count sheets, preference cards, and the instrument tracking system data, causing confusion.


Frustrations and Tones

  • Using a loud voice, or yelling in times of urgency, contributes to heightened stress.
  • Lack of a calm attitude in stressful situations can contribute to further frustrations and delays.
  • Tone of voice not staying calm in times of need.
  • Lack of professionalism when making requests.
  • SP technicians are responsible for answering phone calls and speaking with team members in various units about their needs. The need to be professional and courteous is critical to success.


Lack of Information or resources to promote effective communication

  • The phone system used in the department needs replacing or is past its life expectancy causing a breakdown in communication.
  • Lack of training on the proper “who to call, when” phone tree or contact list making it difficult, and at times confusing, to reach the right person in times of need.
  • Sterile processing professionals are not being told the whole story of what’s happening making it difficult to complete their duties effectively.
  • Discontinued or nonexistent shift huddles resulting in the lack of shared information.

Perceptions and Expectations

  • Lack of direction from leadership to team members on expectations, making communication difficult.
  • Lack of accountability when challenges arise making it difficult to navigate high stressed situations.
  • Often both the SP and OR areas carry inaccurate perceptions about each another, due to lack of proper communication or relationship building.


Improper Training or adaptation to environment/tools

  • Computers and software systems are used in SP units and provide communication to team members. Improper or ineffective training or knowledge of these systems can cause issues, delays, or confusion. 


Communication Tips and Tricks 

Here are some basic speaking skills and listening skills that can help contribute to your success:
Identify the main point in a message, so you can ensure that each point is addressed, and you reply appropriately. 

  • Use a positive and enthusiastic attitude when you respond to a question or are prompted for help.
  • Remember that you are the expert in your field, and they are seeking your guidance.
  • Show interest when listening and try not to interrupt.
  • Provide as much detail in your response the first time, saving time later.
  • Always be truthful and focused, don’t ramble or digress.
  • Concentrate on the listener, rather than on yourself, and remember there is always a patient issue waiting on the other end of the phone or request.
  • Use a language your listener will understand.
  • Stay professional in all that you do.
  • Try not to be influenced by emotions, the SP and OR are high stress areas already so staying calm and thinking critically is key attributes to successful communication.
  • Focus on what is familiar to you and seek help when necessary. Don’t be afraid to return to the speaker later if you need to seek help.


Sterile processing and healthcare professionals have a duty to the patient and to one another, to stay positive, professional, and diligent in what they do every day. This work is challenging and highly stressful, so all personnel should focus on their human relation skills and communication to ensure they are providing the most effective and safe quality care, creating a working environment that is enjoyable and functional. It is important to keep the nonverbal and verbal communication positive and consistent, delivering the best outcomes possible.

International Association of Healthcare Central Service Materiel Management (IAHCSMM), Central Service Technical Manual, Eighth Edition, 2016.