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This award-winning blog supplements the articles in Hospital Infection Control & Prevention.

APIC 2017: The Human Touch

By Gary Evans, Medical Writer

As medicine and human communication become increasingly driven by technology, infection preventionists must not lose the human touch and inherent empathy of a profession long dedicated to protecting patients from infectious threats, keynote speakers said in Portland Wednesday at the annual conference of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC).

In an opening session attended by some 4,700 IPs from 31 countries, APIC President Linda Greene, RN, MPS, CIC, FAPIC, referred to the long history of infection control in saying, “I am astonished by how much the profession has changed – surveillance, technology, emerging pathogens, public reporting – [across] the entire continuum of care. We continue to grow and change at a pace that is unparalleled.”

Amid that change it is critical to preserve the core values, including protecting patients and families -- which over time become the IPs' own loved ones, as all of us come to the same crossroads between illness and health. This is the moment infection prevention is critical because one lapse could lead to a healthcare associated infection (HAI), severely disrupting that patient’s life or, in tens of thousands of cases, ending it.

“Despite all the technological advances we must continue to make infection control personal,” Greene said. “It may be a simple test, a simple procedure, but one lapse in asepsis, a lapse in hand hygiene, a lapse in high level disinfection – even a dose of unnecessary antibiotics – can result in an HAI.”

IPs, as the poet Robert Frost termed it, have “promises to keep,” she noted.

“With infection prevention, we must blend the art and the science,” Greene said. “Every day we have the opportunity to touch a patient’s life – sometimes in a small way, sometimes in a large way.”

The promise IPs made to keep patients safe must be extended to the next generation of practitioners, “harnessing their passion” through mentoring, Greene said.

It is a passion that has driven many to a field where if everything goes exactly right it’s entirely possible that no one will notice.

“The impact of infection prevention for people who do not [acquire] an infection is not visible to a lot of people and frankly not broadly acknowledged, if at all,” said Jodie Vanderpool, MBA, LNHA, CPPS, HACP, vice president of quality at St. Luke’s Health System in Boise, ID. “But the impact is so significant. As you all know, the impact truly saves lives.”

Vanderpool received APIC’s Healthcare Administrator Award for her commitment to infection prevention at her facility.

One challenge for IPs, noted another keynote speaker, is retaining the empathy central to their mission in an age where human communication is both aided and undermined by technology. Since 2000, technology has eroded human conversation in the sense of truly conversing, particularly the lost art of listening, said Celeste Headlee, journalist and communications expert with Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. As more communication became electronic, there has been a corresponding decline in empathy, the emotional state of recognizing and sharing the feelings another is experiencing. Research has shown “almost a 40% decline in empathy since the year 2000,” Headlee said, urging IPs to talk to people – and more importantly listen – while disconnecting from the electronic exchanges for a while.

“Humans do conversation better than any species on the planet,” she said, adding that the context of communication is often emotional rather than logical.

“You can’t debate with an emotional argument – that’s absolutely true,” Headlee said. “But conversation is not a debate. Human beings are inherently illogical. You can’t have a good ‘logical’ conversation. We are emotional creatures. No matter how awkward it feels to you, you can’t retreat into logic when emotions are strong.”

Learn to listen without being defensive and recognize that everyone you meet knows something you don’t, she said. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.”

“You will change more people by listening than talking,” she said.

Gary Evans has written about infectious diseases, occupational health, medical ethics and a variety of other healthcare issues for more than 25 years. His writing has been honored with five awards for interpretative and analytical reporting by the National Press Club in Washington, DC.