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Critical Thinking = Critical Outcomes

The goal of any sterile processing department (SPD) is to provide high-quality products and medical devices that are safe to use on patients, with little to no errors along the way. The sterile processing (SP) environment requires the use of highly technical equipment and machines to prepare surgical instruments through intense cleaning, disinfection, and sterilization practices. Because these responsibilities are so detailed, and potentially risky, the job of any SP professional requires not only robust education, training, and strong teamwork but also critical thinking skills. We are faced with complex situations to navigate daily, and each SPD team member should be trained on how to further develop their critical thinking skills as part of routine on-boarding and continuous learning. Let’s look deeper at how critical thinking can help in reprocessing.


What is Critical Thinking?


Critical thinking can be best described as deliberately analyzing information so you can make better judgements and decisions. How does this apply to sterile processing, you might be thinking, well let’s break it down even further.  Critical thinking can involve a few different components such as logic, reasoning, and creativity. But how do we use critical thinking in our daily lives as healthcare professionals? Believe it or not, you might be using critical thinking more then you realize. Critical thinking is a broad skill that can be applied to so many situations. It is an intentional process that we use to ensure our decisions not only provide the best outcome possible but also inhibit the challenge or barrier from occurring again.

Applying and developing critical thinking skills can have a wide range of positive impacts on personality and professionalism. It allows individuals to find and solve problems effectively by evaluating information from different perspectives, something we do in healthcare every day. This can help drive morale and build stronger relationships.

Examples in our Field

To become a better critical thinker, it’s important to ask questions when presented with a problem or situation, before jumping to conclusions. We can use critical thinking to better handle complex situations and resolve problems more effectively. Let’s look at some examples of how critical thinking can drive critical outcomes in sterile processing.


Question Assumptions

Challenge the assumptions, dig deeper for explanations, and ask probing questions so you have the right evidence to support the claim.


  • Critical Challenge: A phone call from a nurse manager in the operating room who asks for the delivery of a Cystoscopy set because the current set was missing from the emergency case cart. Your assumption is the night shift lead didn’t check the emergency carts this morning. 


  • Critical Outcome: The night shift lead did check the emergency carts; however, the supervisor did not inform the lead the emergency cart was used on an add on case and was being stored in a different location. The emergency cart was in fact picked and checked it had been moved around the corner by the cleaning night crew.


Analyze Multiple Perspectives

Broaden your viewpoint by considering diverse opinions and perspectives. Evaluate arguments objectively, weighing the strengths of each viewpoint.


  • Critical Challenge: It’s been difficult to update the manual cleaning policy for your decontamination. You are hearing from your teammates the steps are impossible to follow with the currently layout of the department.


  • Critical Outcome: You create a policy review committee to help structure the policy in accordance with the steps the team can achieve. You were not aware of so many barriers to their success in the current policy that is why it’s been too difficult to follow. You now have a team of 10 to help develop new policy updates that are achievable.



Develop Problem Solving Skills

Sharpen your problem-solving skills by breaking down complex problems into manageable parts and identifying key factors. Embrace a systematic approach to problem solving to enhance the critical thinking power.


  • Critical Challenge: An arthroscopic shaver keeps being returned to decontamination from the assembly team on the clean side for bioburden issues and borescope findings, however, you are cleaning the scope in decontamination the way you were taught, you’re not sure what to do next?


  • Critical Outcome: You were not aware the shaver needed repair as it’s passed its maintenance due time by over 75 uses and there is some material break down inside the channel. You also realized the OEM released a new updated Instructions for use (IFU) that involves the use of a specialty cleaning brush that is not in your inventory yet. By investigating and working with your team and manufacturer of the device you were able to solve this complex problem.


Cultivate Curiosity and Creativity

Nurture a curious and creative mindset of the team by encouraging exploration and allowing for unique insights and new approaches.


  • Critical Challenge: The weekend team of SPD professionals are always missing out on pertinent information that is shared during morning and afternoon in-services on Wednesday. The organization decided Wednesday was the education day due to late starts for surgery.


  • Critical Outcome: A few team members are great with video, photos, and documentations. The team decides to create a communication board with a dedicated section for “Education & In-Service updates”. Critical information is captured from the training sessions and recorded by the team. The videos are uploaded into the hospital’s LMS, and documented highlights placed on the board for the whole team to review and access.


Engage in Discussion and Debates

Intellectual discourse exposes you to different perspectives, challenges your beliefs and sharpens your thinking skills. Constructively debate ideas, listen actively, and articulate your thoughts effectively.


  • Critical Challenge: The SPD team feels like they aren’t being given a fair assignment rotation, which is driving up the number of attendance issues and tardies among the team. Some of the team members are having to work double shifts to make up for those missing.


  • Critical Outcome: A manager and HR led brainstorm session was scheduled at the next staff meeting to determine the cause of the concerns of the department team members. Many assumptions were identified, where the assignments were rotated monthly rather than weekly. Team members were able to ask to be rotated in all areas of the department so they could sharpen their skills. They felt after 1 month they forgot some of their skills, and more than half the department was interested in gaining their next level instrument certification. Assignments were updated to reflect a more positive rotation fitting the wants and needs of the team involved.

No matter what your role might be in supporting the reprocessing of medical devices and serving patients who are in need, critical thinking can be an applied skill that helps strengthen both you and your team, professionally. Critical thinking can be applied to almost every aspect of sterile processing complex situations and in times when you are having difficulties resolving an issue. Remember, with the right situation, to use critical thinking to help drive success.

Author: Randalyn Walters