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Patient Safety

Automating sterile supply departments protects patients

A robotics company specializing in medical applications suggests that hospitals can benefi t from lessons learned in lean manufacturing.

By Rush LaSelle E

very hospital has a sterile processing department where in an average month it can process more than a million surgical instruments. Processing hundreds of types of instruments with very similar characteristics requires an extensive learning curve on the part of employees. It can take an employee up to six months of training to be able to differentiate between the multitudes of surgical instruments. This fact, coupled with the repetitive assembly-line nature of the work, results in a very high employee turnover rate. The sterile supply process is a labor-intensive and costly pro- cess that directly affects the hospital’s main profi t center, the operating room (OR). Hospital administrators are constantly dealing with problems within the department, including counting mistakes, delays, broken instruments and the potential for unsterile equipment entering the OR. These problems directly affect scheduling, costs and even patient safety. Administrators who are tasked with lowering costs and increasing effi ciency while maintain- ing patient safety are constantly looking at improving the sterilization process.

One company with direct ties to several prominent hospitals recognizes that the sterile instrument process is essentially an assembly line. Robotic Systems and Tech- nologies (RST), of Bronx, N.Y., suggests that hospitals can benefi t from lessons learned in manufacturing by using the tried-and-true automation techniques manufacturers employ to improve effi ciency and quality. “When you think about it, the sterile processing depart- ment’s tasks, for the most part, they consist of counting, sorting, inspecting and processing instruments, just like an assembly line,” says Dr. Michael R. Treat, associate pro- fessor of clinical surgery at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University, an attending surgeon at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital and founder of Ro- botic Systems and Technology. “Automation can perform these tasks precisely, automatically and reliably 24 hours

22 March 2011

a day, seven days a week, allowing administrators to cut costs, re-deploy valuable employees to more challenging tasks, reduce errors and ultimately protect patients.” RST, with the help of grants, initial seed funding from Columbia University and private investors, set out to put a team of engineers on the task of researching and develop- ing ideas for using automation to help hospitals.

Surgical instruments In a hospital, surgical instruments come in, are put into

inventory, used in operations, are counted and accounted for after the operation, are then sent to sterile process-


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