The Importance of Sterilization in the Medical Field

There are a few reasons why people today live longer than they did back in the Dark Ages. We have fewer wars and plagues, but a lot of our success as a race has come from our advancements in medicine. For example, people used to die regularly from childbirth, which is rarely fatal with today’s modern technology.

However, one of our most outstanding medical achievements is also one of our most basic: our knowledge of the importance of sterilization in the medical field. Figuring out what germs were and how to get rid of them effectively saved a lot of injured and sick people from unnecessary complications in recovery. It’s incredible how far we’ve come. Here’s an in-depth look at how critical sterilization is and the best ways to achieve it.

Benefits of Sterilization

There are many benefits to sterilization, but the main one is killing germs that could harm a patient if their doctor uses contaminated equipment. It also gets rid of any excess blood or other foreign particles that that equipment could leave behind. Depending on who these unseen particulates belonged to, there could be some dire consequences for the next patient. As a bonus, the sterilizing process can prevent corrosion over time as well. This is incredibly valuable when the equipment in question is expensive to fix or replace.

While most processes for disinfecting equipment are extensive, none of them is perfect. Bioburden, which is the measure of microbes that remain on a sterilized surface, is still an issue. Regardless of what stays behind, though, disinfecting helps limit the area where these surviving germs can breed.

What It Prevents

Now that you have a better idea of its benefits, it’s time to explore the complications that sterilization prevents. The most common issue that used to arise from not disinfecting medical equipment was infection. Centuries ago, people had bizarre ways to try to beat infections. Now that we understand what it is and its causes, it’s much less of a threat. Still, the disinfecting process has saved many surgeons from needing to perform a second surgery to correct an infection that they caused the first time they went in.

Another considerable risk that sterilization prevents is the passing of diseases. It was quite common for people to end up with various diseases passed from a doctor’s previous patient through tainted equipment. Even recently, there have been cases in which a person received an STD from medical utensils that doctors didn’t clean properly—but luckily, cases like this are uncommon.

The final, although much rarer, risk of inadequate sterilization is the possibility of death. Death is more of a result of either of the previous two risks, but the people who died from infection or disease would never have suffered if their doctor had been able to disinfect the equipment properly.

Levels of Sterilization

Depending on what you need to disinfect, different levels of sterilization are necessary. Critical objects that come into contact with infected parts of the body need high-level sterilization, whereas noncritical ones that only touch the skin need low-level sterilization. There are also semicritical objects used on mucous membranes. You could possibly get away with low-level sterilization on these, but it’s safer to err on the side of safety with the high-level process.

The Sterilization Process

There are three main steps in the sterilization process that all medical professionals must follow to keep their patients as safe as possible. The first is standard cleaning using soap and water to remove the more obvious foreign particles. After that, the equipment goes through a disinfecting process. This involves the use of chemicals to kill non-spore-forming bacteria. The final step is the actual sterilization, which can take place in several different ways. The goal here is to destroy any remaining bacteria or other harmful microorganisms completely.

Best Methods for the Sterilization Step

The cleaning and disinfecting stages of the process are fairly universal, but there are quite a few different ways to go about the sterilization step. A standard sterilization process uses various chemicals to destroy any remaining bacteria on the equipment. The most common chemicals in this process are bleach, hydrogen peroxide, ethylene oxide, and ozone. They are all quite effective but can be harmful to the next patient if one doesn’t remove them properly from the sterilized object afterward, which is why doctors don’t use this process more regularly.

A much safer way to sterilize medical equipment is with autoclaves. These machines use steam, heat, and pressure to clean all objects inside them thoroughly. On top of being safer than chemicals, it is also much less expensive and can more easily sanitize equipment in bulk. As such, autoclaves are our personal recommendation. If you are interested in picking one up yourself, we have plenty of them available in our online store, as well as any autoclave supplies you might need. However, autoclaves aren’t without faults. A facility can’t use them on equipment with heat-sensitive materials, and steam can’t always fully penetrate an instrument to destroy the germs inside.

This is where dry heat sterilization comes into play. While it doesn’t fix the heat problem, it is a better method for reaching all the nooks and crannies of complex equipment. On the other hand, the process is also relatively slow since it heats the objects up to around 340 degrees Fahrenheit to kill all the microbes inside.

If you need a low-temp option, plasma gas sterilizers are the way to go. This type of machine starts by adding a hydrogen peroxide-based gas into the chamber with all the equipment. After it has sterilized them for a while, it removes the gas, leaving behind plasma to continue sterilizing the objects at a lower temperature than other processes. While that is a valuable benefit, these machines are much more costly than the other methods we’ve presented.

Whether you pick just one method or decide to mix a few together, sterilization is a necessity that all doctors and nurses should take seriously. The importance of sterilization in the medical field is impossible to overstate.

Sterilization infographic