Dr. Jerry Zuckerman, MD, is a distinguished healthcare professional serving as the Vice President of Infection Prevention at Hackensack Meridian Health. In this exclusive interview, we delve into the insights and experiences of Dr. Zuckerman as he discusses his key priorities as a leader in Infection Prevention and Control (IPC). Dr. Zuckerman shares his strategies for effectively navigating the complex landscape of hospital leadership and achieving tangible results, all while reflecting on the profound impact of the pandemic on the healthcare industry.
Interview with Dr. Jerry Zuckerman, MD, Vice President of Infection Prevention at Hackensack Meridian Health
Q: Infection preventionists seem to have a billion things on their plates, but what are the one or two priorities that matter the most?
Dr. Zuckerman: Sustainability around becoming a high-reliability organization and embedding that into our culture and workforce. The worse your baseline performance, the easier it is to see some improvement, but once you achieve a certain standard, maintaining that level of consistency is a lot of effort. There are so many competing demands that our team members have on them, so it’s important to keep people focused on our values of doing no harm and doing the right thing. So many hospitals across the country have been in distress because of the last 4 years of COVID and the financial impact, so making sure that infection prevention continues to have the support and staffing we need is a top priority.
Q: That seems to be a common theme around balancing a challenging financial environment and having the resources to continuously improve – how do you convince hospital leadership to give you what you need?
Dr. Zuckerman: At HMH, healthcare-associated infection reduction was a network quality goal for many years as reducing harm is something that is important to our clinicians and broader team. Something that leadership also does think about is the real impact infections have on financials like HAC penalties as well as on public reputation through CMS STAR ratings and Leapfrog safety grades. When requesting resources for a program, it’s important to show both the positive impact on patient safety and improved outcomes in health, as well as the cost benefits to the system. For example, when we requested support to implement an electronic hand hygiene surveillance system, we were able to offset the costs by eliminating the labor costs associated with doing hundreds of hours of direct observations.
Q: Speaking of quality, what key performance indicators or metrics do you rely on to measure the success of your department?
Dr. Zuckerman: We look at our standardized infection ratios and device utilization on a regular basis and benchmark our performance against national rates published by NHSN. Whenever there’s a hospital-acquired infection, we conduct apparent cause analyses and are getting better at quantifying lessons learned and sharing across the network. Monitoring compliance with best practices is also critical and one of the more challenging areas to get reliable information. When our processes are consistent, I feel confident that our infection rates will remain low.
Q: During the pandemic, leaders at APIC said we lost a decade of progress in the fight against HAIs, and the CDC has reported significant increases in MRSA, C. auris, and other infections. What do you think happened?
Dr. Zuckerman: I do believe it was pandemic-related, and especially in 2020, it was pretty dark out there. For hospitals that were seeing surges of COVID patients, systems were overwhelmed, personnel were overwhelmed, and in order to provide care to all, it probably led to some corner cutting. The adoption of new practices to care for COVID patients also made an impact. For example, early in the pandemic, some unorthodox practices, e.g. administering intravenous fluids and medications outside a patient’s room via long catheter lines, were implemented to reduce healthcare worker exposures but may have increased the risk for central line infections. Labor shortages and high turnover of personnel resulted in us onboarding many new hires and contract staff who were not familiar with our infection prevention bundles and best practices. Additionally, a lot of experienced nurses, who were critical in training the next generation, retired during the last few years.
Q: Is there a message you want to share with the broader IPC community?
Dr. Zuckerman: Healthcare workers, no matter what their role is, do not intend to do any harm. It is critical that healthcare systems and hospitals provide the means, resources and support to provide the safest care possible. We need to ensure there is a culture of high reliability and create/improve workflows to minimize the risk of human error.
Q: What’s your secret office superpower?
Dr. Zuckerman: The team of infection preventionists and quality/patient safety coordinators. Infection prevention is a team sport.
Q: If you could go on vacation anywhere tomorrow, where would you go?
Dr. Zuckerman: There are so many places on my bucket list. Right now visiting Antarctica or New Zealand are pretty high on my list.
Q: What’s your favorite restaurant near the office and what’s your go-to order?
Dr. Zuckerman: A good pizza or Greek salad are always nice to have during a very busy day.
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