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Changing Professions? The Evolving Role of the Infection Preventionist

Few careers offer as much growth and opportunity as infection prevention and control–or have seen as much change in the last decade. For healthcare professionals looking for new challenges, infection prevention provides careers with significant visibility and increased importance to healthcare enterprises. With the future of healthcare tied to health promotion and cost control and with greater emphasis on evidence-based medicine and outcomes-based research, the profession of infection prevention and control is an attractive career for individuals with diverse skillsets ranging from nursing to medical technology to epidemiology and public health.

A large proportion of infection preventionists (IPs) are nurses with a variety of educational preparation and may have advanced academic degrees in public health, epidemiology or infection control. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects employment opportunities for registered nurses to grow at about 19% over the next decade, with much of the growth attributed to prevention efforts and scientific advances in the healthcare industry. Additionally, a smaller percentage of IPs are public health epidemiologists or medical technologists. The BLS projects overall growth for epidemiologists, whether nurses or others employed in hospitals and non-hospital settings, to be between 20% and 28% in the next 10 years.

The rapid growth in this field has also created opportunities for people who lack clinical expertise, but have a solid college or master’s level background in biological sciences. These individuals typically pursue a certificate or master’s level course in infection control to enter this exciting field.

Infection preventionists often receive on the job training. In general, the basic knowledge needed by the infection preventionist includes microbiology, the epidemiology of infectious diseases and how to prevent transmission of infection, the methods used to conduct surveillance for healthcare-associated infections and the principles of sterilization and disinfection. 

Today’s infection prevention specialists are key players in patient safety, and quality improvement activities. The regulatory landscape has raised the importance of accurate data capture and analysis related to healthcare-associated infections (HAIs). In the past decade, electronic surveillance systems have enabled infection preventionists to detect HAIs and multi-drug resistant organisms in real-time, allowing for rapid patient management and initiation of control measures.

The emergence of multidrug resistant organisms such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and repeated outbreaks of Clostridium difficile (C. diff.) has focused public attention on infection prevention, as have reports on the prevalence of other healthcare-associated infections. As patients and regulators demand greater transparency of HAI data and the outcomes of treatment, requirements for public reporting have increased.

No longer can infection prevention be delegated to an interested individual as an ad hoc responsibility. Educating clinicians and patients, modeling and reinforcing evidence-based infection prevention behaviors and performing infection surveillance in the healthcare setting requires a full-time focus. As a result, many hospitals and healthcare systems across the country have created new positions–and large departments–dedicated to infection prevention.

A career in infection prevention offers a tremendous opportunity for individuals with a background or strong interest in healthcare who want to make a contribution to patient safety. For career changers, few jobs offer more growth or visibility or potential job satisfaction.



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