Your mother was right: Wash your hands

Who among us wasn’t nagged incessantly by their mothers to “wash your hands.”? Who among us wasn’t sent away from the dinner table because we hadn’t washed our hands? Is there anything more basic to hygiene than hand washing?

Well, it turns out that people who work in hospitals – doctors, nurses, orderlies – aren’t very good at hand washing. A recent article in The New York Times referred to studies that showed that hospital workers wash their hands only around 30% of the time they are with patients. In one recent study employees were secretly videotaped. Not even 10% washed. What would your mother say?

The Center for Disease Control estimate than 1 out of every 20 hospital patients acquires an infection while in the hospital. Many of those infections are resistant to antibiotics Nationwide, hospital acquired infections cost over $30 billion, leading to nearly 100,000 patient deaths per year. Hospital borne infections can never be completely eliminated, but their incidence can be greatly reduced by such simple things – – you guessed it, hand washing. By the way, if you ever see a doctor in a hospital wearing a tie, make him take it off. The dangling tie picks up and transmits germs, and you can’t exactly wash a tie between patients.

It says much about our medical system, and our society, that hospitals are forced to virtually spy on doctors and nurses to make sure they wash. At North Shore University Hospital in New York, a teaching hospital with over 800 beds, video cameras are used to check on everyone who enters an intensive care room, just to make sure hands are washed. There are even companies that give workers electronic badges to track the number of times hands are washed. Radio frequency chips and undercover hand washing checkers are also employed. This is serious business.

Some facilities have resorted to bribery to or public humiliation. There are actually hand washing coaches, and rewards like free pizza and coffee coupons are handed out. A non-washer can get a “red card”. Hospitals are trying all kinds of technology and gimmicks to promote basic hand hygiene. But we, as consumers, can and should be proactive. If you are in the hospital, as a patient or a visitor, and you see someone who hasn’t washed after coming into a patient room, say something.

And don’t forget to ask the doctor to take off his tie.