Bacteria are everywhere, and some are good for us while others are harmful. Bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms that cause disease are called pathogens. To protect patients from harmful bacteria and other pathogens during medical procedures, healthcare providers use aseptic technique.
Aseptic technique means using practices and procedures to prevent contamination from pathogens. It involves applying the strictest rules to minimize the risk of infection. Healthcare workers use aseptic technique in surgery rooms, clinics, outpatient care centers, and other health care settings.
Following aseptic technique helps prevent the spread of pathogens that cause infection.
Healthcare professionals commonly use aseptic technique when they’re:
- handling surgery equipment
- helping with a baby’s birth by vaginal delivery
- handling dialysis catheters
- performing dialysis
- inserting a chest tube
- inserting a urinary catheter
- inserting central intravenous (IV) or arterial lines
- inserting other draining devices
- performing various surgical techniques
According to The Joint Commission, there are four chief aspects of the aseptic technique: barriers, patient equipment and preparation, environmental controls, and contact guidelines. Each plays an important role in infection prevention during a medical procedure.
Barriers protect the patient from the transfer of pathogens from a healthcare worker, from the environment, or from both. Some barriers used in aseptic technique include:
- sterile gloves
- sterile gowns
- masks for the patient and healthcare provider
- sterile drapes
Sterile barriers are those that have not touched a contaminated surface. They’re specially packaged and cleaned items. Healthcare workers put them on or use them in specific ways that minimize exposure to germs.
Patient and Equipment Preparation
Healthcare providers also use sterile equipment and sterile instruments. To further protect the patient, they apply cleansing and bacteria-killing preparations to the patient’s skin before a procedure.
Maintaining a sterile environment requires keeping doors closed during an operation. Only necessary health personnel should be at the procedure. The more people present, the more opportunities for harmful bacteria to cause contamination.
Once healthcare providers have on sterile barriers, they should only touch other sterile items. They should avoid touching nonsterile items at all costs.
A common procedure that carries a risk for infection is inserting a urinary catheter. These catheters drain urine from the bladder and are associated with catheter-associated urinary tract infections (CAUTIs). When healthcare providers insert a catheter, they demonstrate all four aseptic techniques in action:
- Barriers: They wear sterile gloves.
- Patient and equipment preparation: They open sterile packaging that contains the sterile catheter. They prepare the patient’s skin with a special solution.
- Environmental controls: Only one or two providers and the patient are in the room.
- Contact guidelines: Healthcare providers take great care not to touch any nonsterile surface with the hand that advances the catheter into the patient’s urethra.
If even one part of the aseptic technique is missed during catheter insertion, the patient can easily get an infection.
Aseptic vs. clean
Keeping the environment as clean as possible is always important in preventing infections. However, some situations call for aseptic technique while others call for clean techniques.
Healthcare providers learn both aseptic and clean techniques as part of their training. The goal of the aseptic technique is to eliminate germs entirely. The goal of the clean technique is to reduce the number of germs whenever possible. Clean techniques are important for all healthcare providers and their patients because they prevent infections every day.
Examples of clean techniques include washing hands and putting on clean gloves when needed. Healthcare providers keep a patient’s surroundings as clean as possible, but they aren’t using sterile items or aseptic technique.
Healthcare professionals commonly use clean techniques when they’re:
- giving an injection
- emptying a urinary catheter drainage bag
- giving a bed bath
- inserting a peripheral IV (an IV in a smaller vein)
- removing a peripheral IV
- removing a urinary catheter
While your home isn’t likely a surgery center, there may be a time when you or a loved one need aseptic technique. For example, you may need to change a dressing on a wound, and that requires a sterile dressing.
Note: Proper aseptic techniques require training. Before you need to change the dressing at home, a healthcare specialist should demonstrate the techniques and have you practice them. To change a sterile dressing, a person needs sterile gloves and a special dressing change kit or supplies.
Whenever your skin is opened, you’re vulnerable to infection. That’s why it’s critical for you to get prompt treatment for burns and wounds. Even intentional cuts during surgery put you at risk for infection. The way healthcare providers use aseptic techniques before, during, and after your procedure help protect you from infection.
When you need surgery or other procedures that require aseptic technique, you’re already vulnerable to infections. You need your immune system to be at its strongest to heal. You have a better chance of a recovery if you don’t have to fight off an infection.
Healthcare workers try to minimize several common kinds of healthcare-associated infections (HAIs) by using aseptic techniques. These include:
- CAUTIs (pronounced caught-EASE)
- central line-associated bloodstream infections (CLABSIs, pronounced clab-SEES)
- surgical site infections
Each of these infections represents a major healthcare concern. Medical facilities are required to report their infection rates to the federal government. If their rates are too high, the facility can face disciplinary action.
HAIs cost healthcare facilities and, more importantly, patients. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 37,000 CLABSIs happen each year in people who get dialysis. Treating these infections costs an average of $23,000. people who get dialysis often have multiple chronic conditions that can make it even harder to get over an infection. Preventing the infection in the first place saves lives and money.
The outcome of aseptic technique depends on whether all healthcare professionals thoroughly follow all procedures. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Internal Medicine, 50 percent of HAIs are preventable.
Healthcare professionals are responsible for following clean and aseptic techniques. If you notice that someone fails to wash hands or sterilize equipment, speak up. Doing so may save you or a loved one from potentially fatal infections.