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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 of a study, recently published in the American Journal of Infection Control, that examined ways in which hospitals can recruit and train IPs and keep them on staff.1 Reese is the system director of infection prevention at SCL Health, a nonprofit health care system headquartered in Broomfield, Colorado. Smathers is the system director for infection prevention and control at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania. In a recent email exchange with Infection Control Today® (ICT®), Reese and Smathers discussed key takeaways.
ICT®: Do you sense that there’s more interest in infection prevention as a profession? Do you think younger people might be more drawn to it since COVID-19?
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 than ever, 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 increased interest from internal candidates looking to learn more about infection prevention as well as students who are entering the field and considering a future career in infection prevention.
ICT®: It is estimated that about 40% of IPs will reach retirement age in the next decade or so. How could they ever be replaced?
Reese: There must be recruitment efforts in academia that specialize in the relevant professions [specifically, nursing [and] 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 that we have a pipeline of diverse future talent.2
ICT®: Do you think or hope that states will consider mandating that nursing homes have full-time IPs on staff?
Reese: The need for full-time IPs in nursing homes was definitely made clear in this past year. 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: Although 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 full-time infection prevention support.3 IPs in these environments often wear more than 1 hat and are unable to devote full-time attention to the important work of prevention and responding to infections in long-term care.
ICT®: In terms of IP staffing, do you think COVID-19 may have had an effect? If so, how?
Reese: I think the effect was 2-fold. I think that many people left the position due to the stress of the past year leaving many openings in roles. Those that were close to retirement may have left a bit earlier than they planned. 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 to bed ratio.
Smathers: This pandemic has been life altering for everyone living through it. Many people 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 [Popescu] so eloquently wrote,4 many IPs are burned 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.