Interview with Patricia Bertsche, PhD, RN, FAAOHN

Conducted by Megan Ruckert, BSN, RN, COHN-S

Q: Many nurses in this field originally practiced nursing in a different setting. Tell me about the areas of nursing that you worked in prior to making the transition to occupational health.

A: I started out as a Navy nurse working on a medical floor and covering the psych unit. I realized that my passion wasn’t taking care of sick people. I was more into prevention. So, I got into public health and worked for the County of San Diego as a public health nurse (PHN) for several years. This population included a Native American reservation, as well as migrant workers in the fields. Following this, an opportunity came up with the Department of the Army in the area of occupational health. It was a good transition. And I’ve been in occupational health for many years now.

Q: At what point in your nursing career did you discover the field of occupational health, and do you recall experiencing a defining moment when you realized that occupational health was your “niche”?

A: It happened over time. I continued to narrow my focus and hone in on the client population I wanted to serve.

Q: How did you prepare yourself to be qualified to transition into the field of occupational health from your original area of nursing?

A: When I made the transition into public health nursing, I was in the military in San Diego County. At that time, with a BSN in nursing, you could get a public health nursing certificate. There was an opportunity to focus on prevention there, so I pursued public health in that way.

Q: Since transitioning to occupational health, in which industries have you worked? Of those, do you have a favorite?

A: As I mentioned, I have worked for the Department of the Army. I have also worked in the aerospace industry, for OSHA in Washington D.C., and now I am in the pharmaceutical industry. Which is my favorite? It’s a toss-up. I was the first nurse OSHA hired at the policy level. Because of that, I had the opportunity to demonstrate the value of nurses. That experience holds a special place for me. While at OSHA, I was on the team that wrote the Bloodborne Pathogen Standard. That was the first standard that allowed healthcare professionals, nurses, to function within their legal scope of practice. In my current position, I have a global concern, so that has allowed for a lot of different opportunities.

Q: What do you do to stay abreast of your job, and what are your plans for a next job?

A: I continue to visit company locations around the world to make sure I understand what is going on in the occupational health setting. That is always interesting. Learning about the hazards within new business acquisitions is another opportunity for development.

Q: From which other professional fields do you seek information in order to develop your professional skills?

A: I have worked with and learned from physicians, industrial hygienists, environmental engineers, safety professionals, scientists, and toxicologists. Also, I have worked with people in other pharmaceutical industries in like positions.

Q: Have you ever participated in a mentoring program? If so, did you find yourself acting as mentor or mentee, and which, in your opinion, was more valuable to you as a developmental exercise?

A: I participated in an informal mentoring program in order to learn about the industry that I currently work in, and the way to best operate within that environment. When I was at OSHA, we established an intern program for nurses who were graduate students specializing in occupational health. I do feel like I have mentored a lot of people, both formally and informally. I love to mentor. I love to cause people to think of other possibilities, different ways of doing things, and how to expand their careers.

Q: What has been the driving force behind your pursuit of higher education?

A: When I started my PhD, I thought I would like to teach at the university level. I used to work at Ohio State University, where I helped establish an Institute of Ergonomics. However, after working in the academic environment, I decided that was not a transition I wanted to make.

Q: What advice would you give to occupational health nurses who are unsure of where to begin developing their careers and exploring leadership opportunities?

A: First of all, education is important. I would encourage people to continue to advance their education, to participate in professional activities, and to find a good mentor who can help them think about possibilities they may not have considered.

Note: In April 2015, Pat Bertsche announced her retirement from Abbott Laboratories, where she was the senior manager of Global Occupational Health Services.