2 Infection Preventionists Talk About Reenergizing the Field

Frank Diamond

Frank Diamond has been with Infection Control Today since November 2019. He has more than 30 years of experience working for magazines, newspapers, and television news.

Sara M. Reese, PhD, MPH, CIC, and Sarah Smathers, MPH, CIC, were 2 of the coauthors of a recent study that talks about how hospitals and other health care systems can bolster IP ranks.

What can infection preventionists (IPs) expect after COVID-19? Sara M. Reese, PhD, MPH, CIC, and Sarah Smathers, MPH, CIC, are trying to answer that question. They are 2 of the authors (the other is Heather Gilmartin, PhD, NP, CIC) of a study in the American Journal of Infection Control (AJIC) that looks at ways hospitals can recruit, train, and keep IPs on their staffs. Reese is the system director of infection prevention at SCL Health, a not-for-profit health care system headquartered in Broomfield, Colorado. Smathers is the system director for infection prevention and control at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. In a recent email exchange with Infection Control Today® (ICT®), Reese and Smathers talked about some possible takeaways of their study.

ICT®: I know that you can only depend on anecdotal evidence for this question. But do you sense that there’s more interest in infection prevention as a profession? Do you think younger people might be drawn to it?
Reese:
I feel that after the COVID-19 pandemic, there will be a draw to this profession and really a draw to public health and epidemiology in general. Infection prevention has been highlighted more so than ever before, so the timing could not be better for trying to recruit to the field.
Smathers:
Similar to what we have seen in public health and a number of health-related fields, the interest in medicine and public health has increased with the pandemic. Personally, I have seen an increased interest from internal candidates looking to learn more about infection prevention as well as students who are entering the field and are considering a future career in infection prevention.

ICT®: The fact that about 40% of IPs will reach retirement age in the next decade or so. How could they ever be replaced?
Reese:
There needs to be efforts for recruitment in academia that specialize in the relevant professions (specifically nursing, public health laboratory scientists) and development of IP focused education. Academia programs need to be developed for IPs to come out of school ready to hit the ground running.
Smathers:
It is challenging to think about replacing the depth of experience and knowledge that retiring IPs have developed during their careers, but … we have to ensure that we are building the bench and actively engage our retirees in their succession planning, so they can help mentor and train the next generation of IPs. I’m also very excited by the APIC [Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology] announcement of the Infection Prevention Academic Pathway and think this is the first step to ensuring we have a pipeline of diverse future talent.

ICT®: Do you think (or hope) that states will consider mandating that nursing homes have fulltime IPs on their staffs?
Reese:
The need for fulltime IPs in nursing homes was definitely made clear in this last year for sure. I believe that states are moving in that direction with the risk of infection and outbreaks in the nursing homes with a susceptible population.
Smathers:
While we did not report specifically on long-term care facilities in our publication, I can share my personal thoughts. I agree with APIC’s recommendation that for the safety of the residents and employees in long-term care, we need dedicated fulltime infection prevention support. IPs in these environments are often wearing more than one hat and are unable to devote fulltime attention to the important work of prevention and responding to infections in long-term care. You can find more information on this important issue here.

ICT®: In terms of staffing of IPs: Do you think COVID-19 may have had an impact? If so, how?
Reese:
I think the effect was two-fold. I think that many people left the position due to the stress of the last year leaving many openings in roles. Those that were close to retirement may have left a bit earlier than they planned on! However, I think COVID-19 also demonstrated the importance of our role in health care, which likely opened new positions and once open positions are filled, will increase the IP:bed ratio.
Smathers:
This pandemic has been life altering for everyone living through it. There are many people who have found a passion for emergency response and a true commitment and desire to support their health care facilities and public health departments to keep communities, employees, residents and patients safe during the past year. We also have to be aware, that as [Saskia v. Popescu, PHD, MPH, MA, CIC] so eloquently wrote, many IPs are burnout out and we need to talk openly about how we can help ourselves and our colleagues to recover mentally and physically from the stress of the past year.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.