Who the H is a Healthcare Epidemiologist?

We are happy to feature this guest post from Dr. Pranavi Sreeramoju, Associate Professor and Chief of Infection Prevention at UT-Southwestern!

A few years ago, I overheard my husband tell his friend, “yeah, my wife is a teacher at the local medical school”. “Why didn’t you tell him I am a healthcare epidemiologist?” “It’s a mouthful”, he replied. The rest of the conversation went like this:

“Why not say I am a physician?”

“My friend will think you make a lot of money. You don’t.”

“Why not physician epidemiologist?”

“Again, it’s a mouthful”

“Why not use my real job title, chief of infection prevention?”

“You don’t have a lot of authority on your job”

“Why not associate professor?”

“Aren’t you constantly stressing out that your boss thinks you are a publications and grants underachiever?”

“Why not just epidemiologist?”

“Didn’t some of your team members say they are epidemiologists? I thought some of them were nurses and some of them were not. You went to medical school for fourteen years.”

I was clearly losing at this point. “Well, majority of the effort on my job is to oversee the infection prevention program. Not for teaching.”

“Don’t you teach your colleagues when and how to clean their hands all the time?”

Hmmm. I usually didn’t lose arguments with him, but I lost this one. During my fellowship (in infectious diseases) days, my mentor Stephen Weber used to introduce himself to medical students as a mid-level hospital bureaucrat. At that time, I chose to pursue hospital epidemiology as a career mainly because I like to work with patient outcomes at a population level and I didn’t want to travel for work as they did in global health. Traveling for work is not the same as traveling for fun and exploration.

In the thirteen years since that decision, I have had a never-ending professional identity crisis of sorts. I changed what I called myself from ‘hospital epidemiologist’ to ‘healthcare epidemiologist’ when a colleague insisted that my scope is limited because hospital epidemiologists didn’t address the healthcare system as a whole. Well, my professional society has healthcare epidemiology in its name although my professional society journal’s name has hospital epidemiology in it. Not too long ago, APIC changed its name, but not the acronym (thankfully; like the change in name from PCP to PJP), from Association for Practitioners in Infection Control to Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology. Even the infections we work on changed name from hospital-associated infections to healthcare-associated infections and I have had to explain the difference multiple times to several colleagues.

When I was recruited to my current job over nine years ago, the chief medical officer at that time, Jay Shannon, wanted me to have the job title, chief of infection control (which later became chief of infection prevention), on par with other physician chiefs of clinical services, because the ‘transformation work’, a.k.a., reduction of HAI rates needs to be done with them. Subsequently, the department I am responsible for changed name from infection control to infection prevention, to keep up with national trends in nomenclature fashion. I had some angst over it because we didn’t know how to prevent every infection, and because I had more influence over the committee I chair rather than the department, the committee is called infection prevention and control committee (“We control what we can’t prevent”; my committee members bought that argument!). Regardless of the four job titles I have ever had in my career, medical director of infection control, hospital epidemiologist, chief of infection control, and chief of infection prevention, I have introduced myself as a healthcare epidemiologist to my fellow ID colleagues, although not so much outside ID.

Not that it’s a mouthful as my late husband complained, but more because it’s hard to explain in functional terms to those outside ID. Is a healthcare epidemiologist a glorified infection preventionist with an MD degree? Is a healthcare epidemiologist truly a mid-level bureaucrat in a health system? Is the healthcare epidemiologist someone who helps his or her team stamp out regulatory fires or prepare them to prevent those fires perpetually, like I have had to do? Does the person reduce HAI using public health tools that were taught in the school of public health, and/ or the ‘quality and performance improvement’ tools including bundles that the folks in quality departments worship? Aren’t those tools very similar anyway? Is this person on par with a quality officer or a safety officer in a health system? Does this person present fancy looking ‘key driver’ maps to hospital boards which look a lot more fashionable than the substance in them? Does this person do nerdy and geeky things like mathematical modeling and does this person do clinical research that rigorously studies transmission of pathogens in healthcare settings? Does a healthcare epidemiologist do antimicrobial stewardship? Or diagnostic stewardship? Does a healthcare epidemiologist evaluate clinical outcomes of patients with infectious diseases? Does this person help achieve the triple aim articulated by the Institute of Medicine in their report on quality chasm in hospitals? Does this person work on ‘culture of safety’ in healthcare systems because if you didn’t have a strong culture of safety, then someone will be seen not washing hands right when the regulatory surveyors are walking down the hospital corridors, and the healthcare epidemiologist has accountability for the ‘findings’? Is the healthcare epidemiologist an ‘infection control officer’ for the health system? Some colleagues have also called me chief of infectious diseases because they didn’t know the difference between infectious diseases and infection prevention, a difference, which I have had to explain. Can someone without fellowship training in infectious diseases have healthcare epidemiologist as a job title? Is a healthcare epidemiologist a ‘suit’?

To protect my sanity, I came up with four categories for my job activities. Protecting the floor (e.g., avoiding a regulatory survey failure, controlling an outbreak), Doing the required (implementing programs that are required by stakeholder agencies including regulatory agencies), Aiming high (working on studying or improving outcomes that are not necessarily required by external stakeholders), and Reaching for the stars (e.g., doing innovative research, implementing novel teaching techniques). I began to articulate to everyone that I work on the HAI component of Safety, the ‘S’ in STEEEP, an acronym to describe attributes of Quality of health care provided to patients. However, the different dimensions of HAI extend into timeliness, equitability, efficiency, effectiveness and patient-centeredness, not to mention cost outcomes and satisfaction for patients and healthcare professionals. That’s when I came up with the frame of ‘quality of care related to microbes’. See a previous blogpost I wrote on this topic. However, that doesn’t extend to HIV and other microbes. I have badly wanted to come up with a unifying phrase or a term. I tried to make an acronym out of Infection, Control, Prevention, Epidemiology, Quality, Safety, Teaching, Research, Public Health, and Healthcare Delivery Improvement, and didn’t get anywhere close to a cute acronym that I was after.

These days, I introduce myself as a physician epidemiologist, physician leader for infection prevention, or someone who works on quality of care related to infections, when I talk to those outside infectious diseases. Maybe I should call myself an Infection Quality Officer, or IQ officer for short. May be a LEAP officer, an idea that occurred to me as I helped my mentee apply for the leadership in epidemiology, antimicrobial stewardship and public health fellowship.

I see that other academic departments and divisions that establish programs to address quality of care in the patient population they serve, call the person in this role, a ‘xxxx (department or division name) quality officer/director/chief’ who is either a system-wide quality officer (who works with other divisions and departments in the entire healthcare system) or a divisional quality officer (who works geographically within the division or department. Why doesn’t everyone in infectious diseases who works on quality of care (regardless of whether it is healthcare epidemiology, infection prevention, antimicrobial stewardship, quality of care for specific diseases like HIV or specific populations like transplant patients) band together and create one position- chief/director/office of quality in infectious diseases, like other academic departments or division? Is that giving in to too much peer pressure?

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