How to Sterilize Medical Equipment

Written by Matt Anderson on Monday April 29, 2019

Sterilizing equipment is a vital element of modern medical care since patients come in contact with surgical tools, syringes and bandages all the time. To ensure the medical safety of your patients, medical practitioners and the environment, you must use medical equipment safely — this includes keeping them clean and sterilized. Thorough and effective cleaning of these important equipment pieces is necessary to avoid the possibility of disease spreading from patient to patient.

Here we explore how to sterilize medical equipment, including the benefits of doing so and methods and accessories used to carry out the sterilization process.

Benefits of Sterilizing Medical Equipment

With invasive procedures, there's contact between a patient's mucous membranes or sterile tissue and a surgical instrument or medical device. A significant risk of these types of procedures is introducing pathogenic microbes, potentially resulting in infection. When you don't properly disinfect or sterilize medical equipment, it increases the risk of infection due to the breach of host barriers.

For both hospital staff and patients alike, germs need to be destroyed to reduce the spread of infections. A prime example of this is fighting against healthcare-associated infections (HAIs), which are infections hospital patients get due to their hospital stay. Surgical instruments, contaminated equipment or improper staff hygiene can cause HAIs.

Some benefits of sterilizing medical equipment include:

  1. It eliminates pus, blood, foreign particles and dirt left behind that could lead to dangerous complications for the next patient requiring surgery where the medical practitioner uses the instrument.
  2. It decreases bioburden -- the number of non-sterilized bacteria living on a surface.
  3. It prevents the corrosion of expensive and highly precise tools that have delicate pivots and hinges.
  4. It removes the breeding ground for the surviving germs.
  5. It ensures the safe transport of equipment needing to be packed and assembled for sterilization or disinfection.

Sterilization and disinfection, when properly used, can ensure the safe use of non-invasive and invasive medical devices.

How to Sterilize Medical Equipment

To prevent HAIs from spreading, all hospitals must have a plan of attack. The germ warfare strategy of the hospital consists of a few processes done in this precise order:

  1. Cleaning: Cleaning must always come before high-level sterilization or disinfection.
  2. Disinfecting: This is the second step and can involve using liquid chemicals are used to kill non-spore forming bacteria.
  3. Sterilizing: You can employ several methods of sterilization to kill disease-causing microorganisms and eradicate transmissible agents, like bacteria and spores.

The level of sterilization or disinfection is dependent on how you intend to use the objects. Whether equipment requires high-level sterilization, low-level disinfection or high-level disinfection depends on where it falls in these three categories:

  1. Critical objects: An example includes surgical instruments that come in contact with sterile tissue.
  2. Semicritical objects: An example includes endoscopes that come in contact with mucous membranes.
  3. Noncritical objects: An example includes stethoscopes that come in contact with only intact skin.

You must consider the benefits and disadvantages of specific techniques when choosing a sterilization or disinfection process. When you adhere to these recommendations, you should improve sterilization and disinfection practices in hospitals and other healthcare facilities, thereby decreasing infections linked with contaminated patient-care objects.

Methods for Sterilizing Medical Equipment

Choosing the best sterilization method is extremely important when it comes to medical equipment. At best, using an inappropriate or insufficient method of sterilization can keep your medical equipment from receiving clearance from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other regulatory bodies. At worst, inadequate sterilization can result in the transmission of infectious diseases which can lead to patient illness or death.

For example, in 2015, an antibiotic-resistant bacterial infection outbreak was associated with reprocessed duodenoscopes used for accessing the small intestine in a variety of procedures. These scopes, which were designed by several medical device manufacturers, were found to have a flawed design which kept them from being completely sterile between procedures.

Because of this, as many as 400 individuals became infected with so-called superbugs which led to at least 35 deaths. The duodenoscopes’ manufacturers faced lawsuits from patients and their families impacted by this outbreak, and the FDA made a series of device recalls.

Some methods of sterilizing medical equipment are as follows.

1. Steam Sterilization

Most sterile processing departments have steam sterilizers called autoclaves. This is because steam can clean many common medical devices, and it's typically the safest and cheapest option. Some technicians will only consider using another method when the medical device is made of a heat-sensitive material or cannot be steam sterilized. The autoclave applies intense pressure and heat to destroy all microorganisms on an object.

With steam sterilization, an appropriate decontaminant is used to clean the outside surfaces of the medical equipment. You can prevent damage by using either paper or cotton to wrap the instruments before the process starts. For best results, you must expose the steam to all equipment surfaces. When you place the equipment inside a steam sterilizer, be sure you leave enough spaces between various pieces so each piece can freely move. You should refer to the manufacturer’s manual before using the steam sterilizer.

2. Dry Heat Sterilization

When steam cannot penetrate an instrument or can destroy it, your next logical option is dry heat. Dry heat is a strong but slow technique requiring high temperatures and time. Because of this, it's not suitable for many materials, but it's often still more reliable than various other options. Dry heat sterilization uses air of around 340 degrees F to kill microbial life.

3. Chemical Sterilization

Prepared chemical solutions are involved in this process. Some chemicals often used in sterilization are:

  • Ozone
  • Ethylene oxide
  • Hydrogen peroxide
  • Bleach

These chemicals have the power to kill a broad range of pathogens and have properties that could be harmful to humans. You submerge the equipment into the prepared chemical completely for a certain amount of time until the pathogens die. Once sterilized, rinse off the equipment and allow it to dry. Chemical sterilization isn't suitable for biological materials, fiber optics and other highly heat-sensitive materials.

4. Plasma Gas Sterilizers

This type of sterilization uses low temp hydrogen peroxide-based gas plasma inside a chamber to kill any microorganisms on dental and medical equipment, including spores, bacteria, fungi and viruses. When you add vaporized hydrogen peroxide to the chamber, it sterilizes the enclosed equipment. Once you remove the vapor from the chamber, it produces a plasma of a lower temperature, which ensures total sterilization for all equipment.

Oxygen and water are the remainder of this process and make these sterilizers safe for both the environment and medical staff. While this is a more costly method, it's extremely effective and an excellent option for medical equipment and tools that are moisture sensitive.

5. Vaporized Hydrogen Peroxide (VHP) Sterilizers

Like with plasma sterilization, you also use hydrogen peroxide vapor with VHP sterilizers, but you don't use plasma gas when within the sterilization process. VHP sterilization removes humidity from within an enclosure, and a generator rapidly injects VHP to reach an ideal concentration for sterilizing equipment.

Microorganisms that could be present are removed effectively by the vapors, sterilizing the enclosure. The process is then reversed by the generator, which breaks down the vapor into eco-friendly elements. VHP sterilization has a low cycle time, which results in having the capability to sterilize high volume batches of equipment.

Sterilizing Accessories

Some examples of accessories used for sterilization include the following:

1. Healthmark Clear Top Scope Sterilization Trays

These sterilization trays are designed for sterilization, transportation and medical scope storage. Their amber lids allow clear instrument viewing while keeping them protected through the cleaning and sterilization process.

2. Healthmark Plastic Instrument Sterilization Baskets

These sterilization baskets are economical, lightweight alternatives to costly metal sterilization trays and professionals may use them for similar tasks. There are no sharp edges on the sterilization trays that could tear or damage sterilization packaging. The plastic instrument baskets are made with durable polypropylene for sterilizing, transporting and storing medical tools. The instrument trays are 285 degrees F autoclavable and may be EtO, steam or gas-plasma sterilized.

3. Tuttnauer Clean & Simple™ CSU1 Ultrasonic Cleaners, One Gallon

These cleaners use ultrasonic waves for cavitating — creating implosive bubbles — in cleaning solutions or water, dislodging soil from equipment and instruments. These machines operate at a 60 kHz frequency for effective cleaning but without the risk of damage linked with the ultrasonics using low frequencies or loud noise. You can set the cleaning cycles for any time length between 0 and 60 minutes using the timer dial.

The Ultrasonic Tanks have a one-gallon capacity, which makes them big enough for holding a number of instruments or two half-size cassettes. There's a stainless basket available for holding instruments. The tanks are made of stainless steel and come with a removable lid. The external surface is scratch resistant and simple to clean.

4. Healthmark Selecta Cleaning Spray Gun

This spray gun is made to help with cleaning endoscopes, cannulas, curettes, glassware and a lot of other instruments before sterilization. Numerous tips adapt the Water Nozzle to certain cleaning tasks. Its Spray Cleaner is connected to pressurized air or water to offer powerful cleaning and can eliminate surgical debris and soil from instruments.

You can set the Medical Instrument Sprayer's maximum flow by adjusting the screw located behind the trigger. During use, the flow rate is determined by how much pressure is applied to the trigger. The Healthmark Sprayer's grip is insulated to use with hot water safely.

You can get the spray gun by itself or in a choice of sets, including spray tips and connectors and hoses. The long hoses allow you to stretch the sprayer to almost any position for achieving the best cleaning. You can't accidentally remove the tips, even with high-pressure flow.

5. Healthmark 113 Medical Instrument Transport Carts

These transport carts are made for the transportation and storage of SST-2136 Instrument Trays. The Transport Carts have a couple of separate compartments — each with a gasket-sealed, watertight door. You can designate one compartment for clean trays while the other one can be for dirty trays to pick up and drop off instrument trays together.

They are constructed in a single piece to make cleaning easy and made from double-walled polyethylene for protecting the contents. You can use the removable shelves to store objects other than the SST trays. You can clean the Healthmark's 113 Sterilization Carts in a cart washer by hand or with steam.

Cleaning Sterilization Accessories

Some examples of sterilizing accessories used for cleaning include the following:

1. Sklar Kleen Low Foam Detergent

This foam detergent is made to clean surgical tools and other glassware, metals, rubber and plastic. You can get the Sklar detergent in both liquid and powder form.

Sklar instrument cleaners are excellent for cleaning tools used in the dental, emergency and surgical medical fields. The cleaners are safe to use and made to the highest quality to use with any stainless steel tool. To protect valuable surgical tools, Sklar cleaning detergents are formulated specifically to offer cost-effective care solutions for instruments that help maintain the performance and life of your valuable stainless steel tools.

2. Sklar Instruments Cannula Cleaning Brushes

These cannula cleaning brushes are ideal for specialty clinics and hospitals. They're made from stainless steel and nylon for maximum durability and are available in numerous quantities and lengths. QuickMedical can help you with all your medical tool needs, including these Cannula Instrument Cleaning Brushes.

Sklar provides various supplies to help in the maintenance and cleaning of surgical equipment, instruments and hard surfaces. Their whole line of cleaning supplies helps ensure your safety and preserve your investment. Their reputation for well-designed, reliable surgical tools extends to their cleaning items as well, so you'll get high-quality products.

3. Healthmark AWTK Washer Test Kits

These washer test kits offer a set of testing supplies for determining the water quality, water temperature and cleaning capability of three- or four-level automated washers. There are an adequate number of TempaChek Thermometers, TOSI Washer Tests and AquaTest Water Strips to test facility washers every week. They comply with AAMI and AORN guidelines for testing. You'll find four Lab Washer Test Kits in each box.

4. Healthmark Lint-Free Disposable Instrument Cleaning Wipes

These disposable wipes are perfect for cleaning sensitive instruments and equipment like endoscopes before sterilization. They're single-use which prevents cross-contamination from using repeatedly. Made with poly-cellulose, the wipes reduce "fuzz" on endoscopes and instruments due to being low-linting. They're available in 150 12x12-inch wipes or 200 9x9-inch wipes packages.

Contact QuickMedical for New Medical Equipment or Cleaning Supplies

QuickMedical provides world-class customer service. We have a staff of logistics specialists and in-house sales as well as a devoted customer service team to provide you with everything you need with ease. We’re dedicated to your safety and satisfaction with our products. Contact us today for new cleaning supplies or medical equipment.

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