As the globalization of the world economy makes international travel easier and more commonplace, it also contributes to the growing threat of global pandemics like Ebola, Zika and influenza. To help prevent the spread of infectious diseases, healthcare institutions often rely on infection preventionists (IPs) like Margaret “Peg” Pettis, RN, MPA, CIC, the manager of Rochester General Hospital’s Infection Prevention Department in Rochester, N.Y. After a diverse and extensive nursing career, Peg became captivated with infection prevention and has been working as an infection preventionist since 2010. She has been an active member of her local chapter of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC), acting as the Chapter Legislative Representative, and she currently serves on APIC’s National Communications Committee. We spoke to Peg about her experience as an infection control nurse and why she is so passionate about her chosen career.
NN: How long have you been a nurse, and what significant changes have you seen in the nursing profession since you began practicing?
Peg: I have been a nurse for nearly 40 years, so quite a bit has changed, including the introduction of technology like electronic health records (EHR) and robotic surgery. Additionally, more patients are living who would have never survived when I was in nursing school. I remember being in nursing school and hearing a professor predict that one day we might be able to do a liver transplant. And now look what’s possible. The improved survival rate of a lot of formerly “death-sentence” diagnoses like cancer and cystic fibrosis has been a dramatic change.
NN: Can you share a little bit about your nursing career journey? Why did you become an infection preventionist?
Peg: Over the course of 40 years, I’ve had a variety of opportunities and held a variety of positions, including in labor and delivery, education, same-day surgery and employee health. In 2009, I happened to meet two infection preventionists and they were talking about their typical days and I could tell they were just so excited about their jobs, so I started picking their brains.
NN: What do you think students need to know about this specialty?
Peg: It’s very exciting and it’s very challenging. If you are looking for a dynamic atmosphere, often dealing with infectious disease threats and issues that make headlines, then infection control is for you. Your work will have an impact both within your facility and in your community.
NN: What is your favorite part of your job?
Peg: I like the variety. I am never bored. I also love feeling like I am making a difference by helping to lower infection rates, not just in the hospital, but also in the community.
NN: What is the most challenging part of your job?
Peg: Because of the variety, sometimes it’s difficult to schedule your day. You come in and have this great plan for the day and then something pops up. We’re also involved in things I would never have thought I would be doing as a nurse, like construction projects. My hospital has a big construction project going on right now and there are a lot of decisions that need our input, like air quality and the placement of water systems.
NN: What do your day-to-day responsibilities look like as an infection preventionist?
Peg: We review lab tests and see what positive tests come up, and then notify proper units in the hospital and in the community. We also do a lot of education—so many people in the hospital interact with patients and these interactions really have an impact on outcomes. We educate (and collaborate with) everyone from food service workers to medical students to other nurses and physicians. Recently, we had a patient with a highly resistant infection and we met with the environmental services staff to ensure it didn’t spread through cleaning. After the patient was discharged, we didn’t find any spread whatsoever. A representative from the department of health called us to tell us they were impressed with our ability to properly contain the infection.
NN: Why is it important for healthcare systems to have specialists working to prevent and prepare for outbreaks?
Peg: Globally, things change so quickly, and it can be hard to stay current. If you don’t have a dedicated staff focusing on very specific prevention issues, things could really get out of hand. For example, with the Ebola virus, it was only in Africa and then it was at our doorstep in a matter of hours.
NN: How has infectious disease prevention technology advanced over the past few years?
Peg: Eliminating paper records has helped tremendously. More and more facilities are using data mining services to cull through EHR, which has improved communication and timely responses to outbreaks. Even when I’m sitting at home on a Saturday night, I get a little ping to let me know we have a patient who has tested positive for the flu. This has really helped infection preventionists because instead of spending hours flipping through stacks of paper, we can absorb the information quickly and start responding.
NN: How did you get involved with APIC? How has your involvement enriched your professional career?
Peg: When I met the two infection preventionists who inspired me to make a career move, they immediately told me I had to be an APIC member because of all of the support and guidance. Hospital leadership really values APIC membership and what they contribute to the profession. I feel like being a member has really opened doors for me professionally. APIC makes it so much easier to stay up-to-date on research through email updates, conferences and webinars. If I had to do all of this research on my own, I’d have a hard time.
NN: Looking forward, what advancements/changes do you expect to see in infection prevention? What do you think will be the most dramatic change?
Peg: I think the most dramatic changes will continue to be in technology. I think automated surveillance will become even more commonplace and there will be more rapid diagnostic systems in place, instead of waiting five days for a culture report or a day or two for a radiologist to review a report. One challenge for us will be continuing to use that technology wisely and not losing sight of the human element that is so important.
NN: Is there anything else that you would like to add?
Peg: I love being an infection preventionist! I really feel like I’m making a difference. For nurses who are on the floor and are hesitant about leaving the patient bedside, I offer up this example: In 2016, we started using a new alcohol-impregnated cap for IV lines to help prevent contaminants from entering blood streams. Since then, we’ve seen a 39 percent decrease in blood stream infections. That means patients are going home to their families more quickly, and fewer patients are dying. I look at those numbers and think, “Wow. We pushed to introduce that technology to our hospital, and we were ultimately able to really make a change here.”
"Unseen Enemy,” a new documentary sponsored by Johnson & Johnson exploring the imminent threat of infectious disease in an increasingly connected world, premiered on CNN on April 7. To watch the trailer and learn more about the film, visit JNJ.com/progress.