Importance of understanding sterilization indicators

Sterilization of medical equipment and sterilization-related processes have become of immense importance in the field of healthcare over the years. The primary reason for this is that the scope of healthcare has grown tremendously, encompassing not only services offered but also the rapid expansion of demographics that have access to and avail healthcare. Secondly, there has been increased focus on quality of healthcare and increased awareness about healthcare services. As a result, most doctors and patients today pay close attention to aspects such as sterilization of equipment, which greatly reduces the chances of contracting infections, especially in intrusive medical procedures. Furthermore, healthcare providers are also increasingly wary of tort litigation and reputational risks, including those arising out of poor or improper sterilisation of equipment.

Biological and chemical indicators play different but complementary roles in the sterilization process. The key differences between these indicators is in their reactions to microbial stimulants rather than the sterilization process itself. While biological indicators play an active role in eliminating microbes that have survived the previous sterilization processes, chemical indicators do not perform such a function. Instead, chemical indicators act as a last line of defence to ensure that the sterilization process is completed successfully. However, chemical indicators have an edge over biological indicators in that most chemical indicators have faster reaction time. Nonetheless, most practitioners usually use both biological as well as chemical indicators in their sterilization processes.

While sterilization indicators and their reading are of immense importance to both medical practitioners and patients alike, they form the secondary processes in sterilization. Primarily, maximum amount of sterilization is achieved through physical means such as heat, vacuum chambers and disinfectants. However, indicators also play a vital role in measuring the efficacy of these physical processes. As a result, biological and chemical indicators are often used even after the most basic of these processes to ensure that the sterilization equipment or chamber (or any other medium) is performing its function to the required level. It is due to this very factor that a variety of indicators, especially chemical indicators, with different degrees of detection sensitivity and capability are in the market today.

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Traditionally, the realm of medical equipment sterilization has been an area of expertise for medical practitioners alone. However, in recent years patients have become increasingly interested in understanding medical procedures and for good reason; this includes the medical sterilization process. However, understanding sterilization procedures is a challenge for most patients since it requires a degree of technical as well as medical expertise. As a result, several patients have sought to understand how the various physical, biological and chemical indicators work. Yet, a challenge still persists in terms of the range of such indicators available. At the same time, the attempt on part of most patients to get aware is a step in the right direction. Given the Covid-19 pandemic and increasing concerns over health and hygiene practices, it is likely that the number of such patients will swell in the near future. Their understanding of sterilization indicators is likely to be their first threshold while understanding sterilization processes.

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