Transformative Role of the Infection Preventionist

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Hospital germs as bacteria and bacterium cells floating in microscopic space as a medical concept of bacterial disease infection in a medical facility or Doctor examination office.

By Marc-Oliver Wright at PDI Healthcare

In 2022, the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, Inc (APIC), the largest professional society of infection preventionists in the world celebrates 50 years of serving IPs and healthcare professionals dedicated to their mission of advancing the science and practice of infection prevention and control. A half century has wrought dynamic change to the profession perhaps no more so than the influence of a global pandemic over the past two years. 

Initially, IPs (then termed infection control nurses and later infection control professionals or ICPs) were nearly exclusively nurses and often charged with policy development, education and outbreak investigation/management. Surveillance of healthcare-associated infections (HAI) was codified with the advent of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Nosocomial Infection Surveillance (NNIS) System in 1970 and took on greater prominence in the early 2000s in response to The Institute of Medicine’s landmark 1999 report “To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System.” With the adoption of pay-for-performance standards and financial implications for HAIs, surveillance and ultimately the goal of preventing these adverse outcomes elevated the role of the IP in acute care. Simultaneously, the educational and professional background of IPs diversified to include allied health (medical technologists, respiratory and physical/occupational therapists, etc.) and public health professionals and the necessity and value of infection prevention in non-acute healthcare settings gained prominence. 

Then came 2020. The skillset of a competent and experienced IP-notably modes of disease transmission, occupational health, surveillance, education, environmental hygiene and crisis/outbreak management are ideally suited for a pandemic and were in demand throughout all healthcare settings and beyond. While there are 3.8 million registered nurses in the United States alone, APIC has 15,000 members in the United States and 47 additional countries. IPs have stepped up and out of their traditional role over the past two years, exacerbated by challenges few had anticipated such as global supply chain disruptions. As the world prepares to enter the third year of this pandemic, IPs along with other healthcare professionals, face the potential of burnout and compassion fatigue and do so in a setting where their skillset is in demand beyond the hospital’s walls. 

An amusing idiom is that “Infection Preventionists never retire-they consult” and IPs have uncovered opportunities in some unique settings. While the need and demand for IPs in long term care has never been greater, some have found roles in public health agencies, the medical manufacturing industry, academia as well as hospitality/travel industries. Perhaps the most surprising sector to see value in the IP has been the entertainment industry. While the pandemic made “Netflix and Chill” a national pastime, the film and television industry wanted to find a way to get back to work-safely.  They did so, often leveraging the expertise of IPs-how can you film a love scene or a close contact sport safely? Ask the IP. Similarly, IPs found themselves in demand as subject matter experts throughout their communities—suddenly schools, churches, neighbors and strangers alike discovered the value of an IP being in their backyard. 

What a post-pandemic world looks like and has to offer remains decidedly unclear. Arguably, some things, even in the shellshocked arena of healthcare will return to baseline. Yet the value demonstrated by IPs over the past two years will not likely be forgotten and their role in healthcare and beyond will continue to evolve. Change is inevitable, how we respond to that is up to us.