PAH’s Abby Kengersky more than just ‘the germ police’

PUNXSUTAWNEY — Her kids call her "The Germ Police," but Abby Kengersky's role as the infection preventionist at Punxsutawney Area Hospital (PAH) goes a bit beyond that description, as well.

"I was recently at a conference where the speaker said, 'Infection preventionists make sure that you don't leave the hospital with anything you didn't bring in — unless you had a baby.' My job description falls somewhere between my kids' description of 'Germ Police' and that description," Kengersky said. "They changed the lingo a few years back — it used to be called infection control — but it's a compliance thing in healthcare organizations.“

The root of it came from legislation — Act 52, which was passed in 2007. MCARE (Medical Care Availability and Reduction of Error) said that in Pennsylvania, the Department of Health will regulate all hospital-associated infections (HAI). This state was one of the first to mandate that we report any related infections to help ensure the safety of everyone in the hospital environment."

With a difficult description to all that her job entails, you can see why her kids stick with “The Germ Police.”

Kengersky said that the hospital is rightfully known as the place where people go to get healthy, but the side people don't always think of is just how difficult it can be to keep that environment a safe place for care.

"We're required by law to be in all hospitals to make sure the public doesn't leave with things they don't have when they get here," she said. "We do our best to keep things clean and take good of you, but everyone here is here for a reason. They all have something that caused them to come here, and a lot of those things can spread. And on top of it, while they're here, they're typically in a state where they'd be more likely to catch something, with weakened immune systems. So, ensuring their safety is important to us."

The good news, Kengersky said, is that her role was created by the state to go above and beyond in providing that safe care for the patients — even if you don't see her face too often while she's doing it.

"All of the spread of disease is preventable, and so, that is my role," she said. "You don't always see the infection preventionist. But when you see the sanitizers, the gloves, the masks and the visitor-restriction signs — 'If you have the flu, shoo.’ ‘Cover your cough.’ — you realize there are signs of us all over.”

And while she wears many hats as the infection preventionist, one of the main ones she wears is that of an educator.

"There's a lot of education that goes into the position — for the staff, for physicians, for families and for the patients," Kengersky said. "That's why it's good to put this out there to the public, because as time goes on, there is a lot in the news about MDROs — multi-drug resistant organisms. It's very important that when a patient is taking antibiotics, he or she takes the full course, even if the symptoms go away. The doctors are always saying that, and the reason is that the old saying, 'What doesn't kill you makes you stronger,' goes for bacteria, too. If you don't take the full course, you only weaken the bacteria, and it comes back stronger, and in many cases becomes resistant. Now, healthcare providers have to give higher doses and stronger antibiotics than ever before."

And while providing education to the staff is another part of her job, Kengersky said that's not limited to the doc-tors and nurses who have
direct contact with patients.

"Nurses and doctors aren't the only ones we educate. We educate all of our employees," she said. "One area we look into a lot is our cleaning staff — not just educating them, but also looking into what chemicals we're using for cleaning and how to make sure that we're not negatively affecting patients."

Ultimately, though, Kengersky said that the main component of educational care comes down to educating the patients so that they can be a contributing part of their own care teams.

"More than ever, we value the patient as being at the center of their care," she said. "So, we want to educate them and let them know that they're at the center. We want them to speak up, ask about their care and to hold employees to that high level of accountability. We want them to demand that we wash our hands and take proper precautions, because that's the best care for them and the other patients."

Under the old title — infection control — there was an understanding of keeping the infections limited once discovered, but the new title — infection preventionist — means Kengersky's job is to stay ahead of the infections and keep them from occurring.

"Washing our hands — hands hygiene — and the system we use to prevent the spread of infection are the two main things we have to focus on," she said. "Those are all called precautions. If someone is staying here, there are signs on the door saying what you'd have to wear to visit — masks, gloves, gowns. We changed all of those signs from wordy signs to picture-based ones to see quickly at a minute's glance how you can keep that patient — and yourself — safe."

That awareness, Kengersky said, is especially important
for visitors to participate in as a matter of preventing spreading infections throughout the hospital.

"It's very important for folks to know that we also ask our visitors to check with the nurses before visiting," she said, "We take visitations very seriously. And we want people to visit, but we want to make sure it's a safe visit to improve and maintain the quality of care. People always say, 'I don't have to do this at home. Why do I have to do it here?' But we use the precautions more for the patient next door or the one down the hall. Your family's already been exposed to the germs, so you might be carrying them but not showing symptoms. So, you may be safe, but you might go to the cafeteria or go visit someone else, and it's important to protect everyone by following the precautions."

Kengersky also said that, while the hospital is a place for sick people to get well, PAH frowns upon its employees taking part in work if they're feeling under the weather, as it increases the risk level for the patients.

"One of the other things I do is maintain the health of the employee," she said. "Vaccinations and monitoring illness in the employees is something that's important. We have a firm policy, where employees don't come to work if they're ill. You can spread the infections if you're sick, so our employees wait 24 hours afterward before coming in."

One example of staying on top of these things Kengersky noted is that there is a government initiative that 90 percent of employees be immunized against influenza.

She added that PAH is very close to that benchmark and that she's certain it will be there next year.

"You can spread the flu without knowing you have the flu, because not everyone is symptomatic, so we make sure our employees are able to care for our patients," she said.

Kengersky said that one of her favorite parts of working at PAH is the fact that it's on the "cutting edge" of technology — even as a small, rural hospital.

"It's about making sure we provide good, quality care," she said. "For a small hospital, we are on the cutting edge of a lot of things, because the administration values the quality of care we provide. The administrators make sure we are educated to provide the proper services. Everyone in this building cares so much about the patients, and a lot of that is because they are our family members and friends. We live here, and that leads to the best care you can get."

One example of PAH staying ahead of the curve Kengersky noted is that PAH's electronic medical record is one other hospital facilities use as a model for their own systems.

"Sometimes, there is value in a small organization, because our administrative team knows what we need to be successful. It's not about convincing a stranger we need this seminar or that training. It's talking to someone who's right there and sees its value to the community," she said.

In closing, Kengersky said those interested in seeking a similar career path wouldn't necessarily have to do so by starting out as a nurse, like she did.

"You don't have to be a nurse. Nursing is a background that fits, but there's also a large portion of the field coming from microbiology labs, because a good part of my day is spent looking at culture reports. Coming from either background can lead to success."