In this weekly feature, the editors of SpringBoard highlight one career in the health care professions–including a basic description, educational requirements, core competencies/key skills needed, and related web sites and professional organizations where you can find more information!
Specialists in Poison Information (SPIs) educate consumers and health care providers about potential poisons and about what to do if a poisoning occurs. SPIs have to know about common poisons, and they have to know how to obtain information quickly about more than one million different drugs, pesticides, chemicals, and even plants. They use specialized on-line databases, textbooks, and medical journals, and they consult with toxicologists when necessary. Examples from a typical day might include reassuring someone who accidentally took an extra dose of medicine, helping a father whose child swallowed a household cleaning solution, and advising a doctor who is treating a patient who attempted suicide. SPIs also have to be prepared to deal with chemical spills, snake bites, bee stings, and even calls about possible terrorist attacks.
Some SPIs create informational materials, lead training sessions for other health care professionals, and assist with outreach at schools, businesses, and other community sites. They’re also part of broader public health efforts. The data they collect go into a national surveillance system that is used to monitor trends in poisonings, track outcomes, and provide early alerts about problems with prescription drugs.
Many poison centers have started to work with local health departments in other ways, such as answering after-hours calls to the health department or helping to disseminate information about an epidemic. Some SPIs are also involved in doing original research. Poison control hotlines are active 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and SPIs generally work 8-, 10-, or 12-hour shifts.
Education and Certification
SPIs are usually registered nurses or pharmacists with special knowledge of toxicology, which can be obtained through on-the-job training at a poison control center. Some are physicians, nurse practitioners, or physician assistants. In most cases, they must earn the credential of Certified Specialist in Poison Information (CSPI), which is provided by the American Association of Poison Control Centers, with recertification every 7 years. For nurses, a current license to practice is essential, and prior clinical experience is helpful and may be expected; some centers prefer nurses who have worked in emergency rooms or intensive care units.
Core Competencies and Skills
- Knack for staying calm under pressure and for keeping others calm as well
- Patience and the ability to listen
- Ability to handle multiple tasks at once
- Ability to communicate effectively with people of different backgrounds and educational levels
- Strong research skills, including the ability to use a computer database and to absorb information rapidly
- Good math skills, for calculating doses, estimating blood levels, and interpreting medical information
- Talent for interviewing, to take an accurate, detailed medical history
Salaries vary from center to center. Many centers hire primarily nurses, in part because pharmacists can command higher salaries. Typical salaries for nurse SPIs range from about $40,000 to $90,000.
Poison control centers may be independent nonprofits, or they may be associated with medical centers or health departments.
According to a 2008 study in the journal Clinical Toxicology, many of the workers at poison control centers are in their 40s or older, suggesting that there will be a need for more specialists as current workers move on or retire. The availability of jobs depends in part on centers’ funding and also on the economy as a whole. With nurses and pharmacists expected to be in demand in the next several years, and with so many different opportunities available, it is likely that poison control jobs will remain obtainable for those who are interested. Willingness to begin with a less desirable shift, such as overnight, may be an advantage.
Remember, however, that there are only about 60 poison control centers nationwide. Not every city has one, and some cover multiple states.
For Further Information
- American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC)
- American Academy of Clinical Toxicology (AACT)