4 Strategies to Keep Infection Prevention Specialists Ahead of the Curve

Hospital and clinical leaders everywhere have an intensely heavy load to carry, and that doesn't exclude infection prevention specialists. With patient safety and infection rates increasingly being tied to federal and state reimbursements, the work of infection prevention specialists has become more important than ever. Sue Penque, chief nursing officer at South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside, N.Y., describes four priority actions infection preventionists should focus on regularly to stay ahead of the game.

1. Constantly observe and collect data. Infection prevention specialists should be regularly collecting data and observing the healthcare environment, such as infection rates and compliance to hand hygiene practices. Ms. Penque says these specialists should be keeping a close eye on quality in every area of the healthcare organization. "I expect that they are out in hospital departments, visible with staff members and routinely rounding patient care units," she says. "They should also be monitoring quality outside of care units in departments such as radiology and nutrition."

Varying methods, including observations and one-on-one staff discussions, can be utilized to ensure proper data collection. In addition, the rapid emergence of electronic health records has made data collection much easier in the healthcare arena. However, Ms. Penque notes data analysis is what is critically important in order to boost any hospital's understanding of where the enterprise stands within the context of performance and patient safety.

2. Plan and execute safety programs. According to The Joint Commission standards, all hospitals are required to conduct an annual education program on infection prevention and control. South Nassau's two nurse/infection prevention specialists took that one step further and added a quarterly teaching program that covers upcoming or new changes to employee/patient safety and infection control standards. Ms. Penque says the quarterly updates serve as a support to the yearly education programs so that hospital employees and medical staff don't have to wait an entire year to learn about these important updates.

Ms. Penque also offers several key considerations regarding safety programs. Quarterly updates, for instance, should be tailored to specific roles, including physicians, nurses or environmental services, so employees are receiving the most pertinent and up-to-date information that is available. "I expect [our nurse/infection prevention specialists] to review the health literature and become the experts to provide evidence-based practices for safety," Ms. Penque says. The safety programs should also be delivered through several venues, including printed materials, online presentations or the traditional classroom setting, to accommodate employees' varying learning styles.

3. Be involved with ongoing construction processes. Many healthcare organizations across the country are busy expanding or constructing new facilities ahead of 2014 — the year approximately 32 million Americans are eligible for Medicaid coverage under healthcare reform. It's a busy and exciting time, but Ms. Penque says infection prevention specialists should keep a keen watch over the process.

"Many hospitals, like ours, are growing, and [infection prevention specialists] have to remember construction could lead to disturbed air flow and other quality concerns in the physical environment," she says.

At South Nassau, the infection prevention specialists are involved in all construction meetings to ensure the proper safeguards are in place to maintain quality and patient safety. Ms. Penque recalls one incident where an area occupied by offices was affected by a small flood during construction. "The infection preventionists and the epidemiologist were right there, observing how the flood and clean-up was being handled, how the carpet would be installed and so on. They're involved in every single step of the process and advising what we should do," she says.

4. Build a support network. Ms. Penque is the first to admit even she couldn't do her job without the assistance of her colleagues. The same sentiment for a support system should be felt by hospital infection preventionists. These specialists should be continually building collaborative relationships and communicating with staff members and clinical and administrative leaders. The infection prevention specialists at South Nassau have systems in place to support the work they do in a number of ways, including an assistant to help document and log collected quality-related information.

"Another example is when our hospital rolled out a new isolation standard [for infection control]. There's no way just our two specialists could have implemented this standard in a hospital of our size without a strong collegial relationship with nurse managers who helped provide unit-level education and support," Ms. Penque says.

In addition to horizontal support, she adds infection prevention specialists need to build a vertical system of support. Infection prevention specialists should be in regular communications with the vice president or executive for quality and hospital epidemiologists. "Who our infection prevention specialists work for and with is critical to their satisfaction," Ms. Penque says.

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