LEXINGTON, Ky. (June 12, 2023) — Are Kentucky patients and communities healthy? Are people being taken care of in their communities? University of Kentucky College of Public Health (CPH) alum Andrea Flinchum has spent many years answering these questions.
For her, it's all about helping people, building trust and partnerships, and "doing better for others than what you did yesterday."
Flinchum is currently the manager for the Healthcare-Associated Infection/Antibiotic Resistance Prevention Program at the Kentucky Department for Public Health (KDPH), furthering their mission of preventing and eliminating health care-associated infections and antibiotic resistant organisms.
Early career and influences
Flinchum started her health care and public health career as a bedside nurse at the University of Kentucky Albert B. Chandler Hospital in 1988. After 17 years, she changed careers to become an infection preventionist with the Infection Prevention and Control Program at the hospital. She enrolled in the Master of Public Health (MPH) program at CPH, realizing what a connection there was between infection prevention and public health.
Originally from Louisville, one of Flinchum’s biggest influences growing up was her grandmother.
“My grandmother was gifted with the ability to make every person feel like they were the most important person in the world and loved everyone unconditionally,” Flinchum said.
Another influence was Flinchum's friend and co-worker Eulene Boyle at the hospital.
“We worked together at the bedside for many years, and she taught me to never stop working when it came to patient care,” said Flinchum. “It did not matter if your feet hurt or you were tired, these patients needed their nurse, and as that nurse, you give yourself unselfishly.”
When she returned to school to pursue her MPH degree as a nontraditional student, Flinchum’s college advisor, Bill Pfifle, also played a key role.
“I needed the extra push and pep talks he gave me to help overcome any insecurities or apprehensions I had coming into graduate school at my age,” said Flinchum. “I was older than some of my professors and a little self-conscious. While not impossible, graduate school after 50 was certainly challenging.”
Finding public health through nursing
The MPH program was a perfect fit for Flinchum. One of her best memories was her class in rural public health, taught by Robin Vanderpool. The class took a field trip to Wendover, in Hyden, Kentucky, the home of Mary Breckenridge — an American nurse midwife and the founder of the Frontier Nursing Service in 1925, which provided comprehensive family medical care to the people of rural Kentucky. Hyden was also where Breckenridge’s base of operations took place.
“These nurses helped deliver babies all over the region, often being awakened in the night to leave on horseback to go to the mothers and babies who needed them," Flinchum said. "They often had to cross the fork of the Kentucky river that runs in front of Wendover, any time of year. There are many pictures of them holding up their saddle bags to avoid getting wet. Mary Breckenridge became my nurse hero and the trip there was quite moving for me."
Day in the life
Each day being a health care-associated infection (HAI) coordinator at KDPH can look different. Mixed with a blend of routine and randomness, it’s definitely not boring, according to Flinchum.
“I will get a random call or email from one of my staff or another department, with a problem or issue — it could be a cluster of infections related to an organism that I have never heard of, or an organism of public health interest,” said Flinchum. “On the other hand, a facility calls, and they have an outbreak that may turn into a large investigation. I consult frequently with our sister programs in the Infectious Disease Branch, the regional epidemiologists across the state and local health departments.”
Some time-consuming projects can include payroll, contracts, budgets and grants, but Flinchum’s team helps with impromptu calls dealing with facilities or health departments that ask for assistance.
“I have a great team that handles a number of these calls, and they keep me involved,” said Flinchum. “I still make site visits to health care facilities. Our team meets weekly to keep up with everyone’s activities. There are always webinars to attend on different topics related to our work and special projects with the CDC and others.”
Flinchum believes that building bridges between public health and traditional health care are vital. Furthermore, it is about building trust between state health departments, health care organizations and the people that they serve.
“We are all in this together,” said Flinchum. “We are part of the continuum of care in that we can assist facilities with resources and information to ensure that they have the tools necessary to provide safe care.”
Building bridges certainly materialized with their current strong relationship with Appalachian Regional Healthcare (ARH), a not-for-profit health system that improves health and promotes well-being of all people in Central Appalachia in partnership with their other communities.
“Our relationship now with ARH is a story about perseverance to help a facility,” said Flinchum. “I had worked with the infection preventionist and wanted to make a personal site visit. This was a matter of building trust with leadership to know that I was not there to judge or penalize, I was there to help. It took about three years to get invited to the facility and now we have a great working relationship because of that first visit.”
To Flinchum, public health nursing is a wonderful career and offers so many different professional possibilities.
“I love that I can impact a large group or a population with my knowledge and skills,” said Flinchum. “It is taking nursing to a larger scale, rather than one or two patients. Nurses play a key role in public health.”
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