One of the first, most important, and enduring lessons nursing students must learn is that of infection control protocols.

Providing adequate healthcare demands the control of the spread of infectious disease where and whenever care is given. This is an ongoing challenge for healthcare professionals, made all the more critical during a public health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic that overwhelmed hospitals across Asia, Europe, and North America in 2020.

Nurses are on the front lines of infection control. Not only during a public health crisis, but also by ensuring infection disease protocols are maintained day-to-day and facility-wide.

A nurse’s education must instill the theory and practice of infectious disease control as a core tenet of caregiving. One that lasts throughout their careers.

Patients, Nurses, and Students Staying Safe

It’s one of the first topics introduced to nursing students, according to the American Nurses Association. Yet, it is an introduction whose principles can often be “lost or forgotten”.

A contributing factor to this loss of focus is a “trend toward accelerated, shorter-duration programs that limit what gets taught in the curriculum,” says Tener Goodwin Veenema, a professor of nursing and public health at Johns Hopkins University. It’s “one of the big challenges for nursing schools nationwide,” she says.

“What we as nurse educators need to do is ensure that all nursing students have the knowledge, the skills, and the abilities that they will need either on a clinical rotation or when they enter the workforce, to keep themselves safe, and to keep patients safe,” says Veenema. This is a critical point. Infection control for all healthcare workers and students working rotations begins with keeping themselves safe.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on clinical training highlights yet another challenge as hospitals, nursing homes, and other healthcare facilities cancel clinical rotations for nursing students. Freshly-minted nurses and advanced nursing students are sidelined at a time they are needed most.

As dramatic and tragic as the COVID-19 pandemic is, it is also an opportunity for healthcare facilities and nursing programs to reinforce their daily infection control protocols. As the crisis eases, it is no less important.

Setting a Better Example for Nursing Students

The paper Effective Infection Prevention and Control: the Nurse’s Role, defines healthcare-associated infections as those developing as a “direct result of a healthcare intervention, or from contact with the environment in any healthcare setting”.

Also known as hospital-acquired infections, the risk of healthcare-associated infections cannot be eliminated entirely, but it can be significantly reduced. The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) provides guidelines and evidence-based strategies for controlling the spread of infectious disease.

While there are signs of improvement, much work remains to be done preventing HAIs. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 687,000 HAIs in U.S. acute care hospitals in 2015.

Commitment to protocols as they are applied to daily clinical practice saves lives and sets the example nursing students need to keep themselves and others safe. Too often this is not the case. A 2013 paper cites a British study that found that of all the student nurses surveyed, everyone had “observed lapses in infection prevention and control practices during their clinical placements.”

Statistics like these are challenges and opportunities to do better.

Honoring Nurses and Nursing Students

For 18 years running, nursing has been the most trusted profession in the country. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 was designated the “Year of the Nurse and Midwife” by the World Health Organization (WHO).

“Nurses and midwives are the backbone of every health system: in 2020 we’re calling on all countries to invest in nurses and midwives as part of their commitment to health for all,” says WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

As Dr. Veenema at Johns Hopkins stresses, a large part of this commitment is establishing the core principles of infectious disease control early, often, and always. Starting on day one of a nurse’s training and continuing throughout their education, clinical rotations, and their entire career.

This is the commitment Houston Baptist University gives all its nursing students. The Master of Science in Nursing degree prepares BSN-prepared nurses to take on leadership roles and advance their career as Nurse Practitioners.

Designed on a competency-based education model, the program blends flexible hybrid instruction with clinical and practical experience at local healthcare facilities. The curriculum combines employee requirements with the American Association of Colleges of Nursing AACN Essentials of Master’s Education in Nursing.

We trust nurses to give us the care we need to stay safe and healthy. When nursing students learn to stay safe through rigorous adherence to infection control protocols, they will keep us all safe. Whether it is a public health crisis or a simple visit to the hospital.