America’s health care system has battled hospital-borne infections for years. But there has been little success.
Nearly 100,000 Americans a year die from hospital infections. That’s more deaths than are caused by breast, colon, and pancreatic cancers combined.
Why can’t we stop this scourge? A study by researchers at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in California may have found the answer.
The study was simple. Scientists used clandestine monitors to watch doctors and nurses as they went about their work. They observed 4,640 incidences of “hand hygiene compliance.” This means the health care workers either washed their hands or used sanitizers.
What researchers found was shocking…
When they were around colleagues or patients, doctors and nurses made sure to practice good handwashing hygiene. But it was a different story when they thought no one was watching.
When they knew they weren’t being observed, health care providers cleaned their hands only 22% of the time they were supposed to.
The study showed that doctors and nurses clean their hands almost three times as often when they are being observed than when they are not being watched.
The lack of handwashing surprised even those on the front lines of the war against hospital infections.
Maricris Niles is an infection prevention analyst at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. “The (low) level of hand hygiene compliance when staff did not know they were being watched was surprising,” she said.
The study demonstrates something researchers call the Hawthorne Effect. Simply put, it means someone will act differently when they know they are being observed.
One nurse, Lisa Hansford, said she notices it while working. “When we would come on the floor, I would notice that the nurses or providers were not using the alcohol,” she said. “Then they would glance up and see me and bend over backwards to lather up.”
Lack of hand hygiene can transmit germs that cause deadly infections such as staph, MRSA, and C.diff.
How to Protect Yourself from Hospital Infections
Hospitals have been trying to clean up their act for years. Some have tried cleanliness competitions between different departments. Others have employed electronic monitoring. Still others have tried to motivate health care workers by showing them disgusting images of millions of bacteria found on hospital surfaces.
But the problem is still so bad that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched a “Clean Hands Count Campaign” to promote hand hygiene adherence in hospitals.
What’s the best way to protect yourself?
Since health care workers are clearly unable to police themselves, it falls on patients to demand safety.
Simply do this: Before a health care worker touches you, ask politely if they have washed their hands. Wearing gloves is not a safe substitute for handwashing.
Dr. Clifford McDonald is associate director for science at the CDC. He said: “If we can get the patients more involved—and get them to be able to speak up—that is really the main thing.”
Patients should not feel awkward about asking, he says. Health care workers know very well that they should be washing. Even though it might feel uncomfortable, insisting on good hand hygiene could save your life.
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