Would you have the nerve to tell your doctor to wash his or her hands?
We all know that germs travel from one surface to another, often carried by human hands. For people with healthy immune systems, contact with many types of common germs does not always lead to illness; in fact, it’s often not a problem. For people with compromised immune systems though, contact with common germs can lead to illness. Even worse, in a medical setting such as a hospital or surgical center, the types of germs that can be transferred from patient to patient can cause serious illness, and even death. We expect doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers to be conscientious about washing their hands, but you might be surprised to hear that in some hospitals the hand washing rate of caregivers can be 50% or lower. What can you, as a patient, do to reduce the risk of having germs transferred to you?
During the mid-1800’s a doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis discovered that when doctors in his Austrian maternity hospital washed their hands after doing autopsies before examining women in labor, fewer women and babies died from childbed fever. He implemented a hand washing protocol on the labor ward, and demanded that all the doctors and nurses wash their hands in a caustic solution when they arrived on the ward and before they touched any patients. Death rates from puerperal fever plummeted in his hospital, and thousands of women and babies survived their hospital confinements because of the hygiene measures in his institution. This took place in the very early days of microscope development, and before germs were viewed by human eyes. Sadly, because Semmelwies was never able to isolate the cause of transfer of illness between people, the other doctors of the time refused to believe him when he said their unwashed hands could be the cause of people dying. He was reviled by the medical community and died an unhappy death in an insane asylum.
Decades later, after microscopy was more advanced, germs were discovered and germ theory was created. Doctors finally understood that indeed, their unwashed hands were the travel mechanism for microscopic organisms that transferred illness from patient to patient.
These discoveries happened in the late 1800’s, so we’ve had well over 100 years to make hand washing the norm in our healthcare institutions and as part of medical training. Yet, a recent study showed that while some hospitals have excellent hygiene practices and compliance, others have compliance below 47.5%. According to the World Health Organization, caregivers are supposed to wash their hands:
- Before touching a patient,
- Before performing a clean/aseptic procedure
- After body fluid exposure risk
- After touching a patient
- After touching patient surroundings
There are a number of reasons why caregivers might not wash their hands, including lack of understanding about the importance of hand washing, a hospital culture that places it at a low priority, lack of time from being overloaded with patients, too few hand washing or hand hygiene stations, and skin irritation from frequent washing.
Even though caregivers know that washing their hands is an effective way of limiting the spread of infectious diseases, it’s not always top-of-mind for them. Since they can’t see the germs, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to connect an illness with a handshake that occurred days before. The importance of hand hygiene can fall by the wayside if the administration and peers within the workplace do not strictly maintain it.
You, as a patient, are the person who will be most seriously affected if hand hygiene is not practiced in the healthcare facility where you’re receiving care. You are the one who will become sick. Therefore, it’s to your benefit to make sure that no one touches you before they wash their hands. Take a few minutes before checking in to familiarize yourself with hand hygiene protocols, so you’ll know when and how it should be done, and when it’s appropriate to be touched with gloves and without. When someone enters your room, watch to see that they take the time for hand hygiene before making skin-to-skin contact with you. If they don’t – ask him or her to do it.
Some people feel uncomfortable taking that stance and making a demand of their doctor or nurse, but it’s your right as a patient to do so. Don’t let embarrassment, discomfort, or over-politeness stand in the way of your health. With the super-bugs floating around in hospitals these days, it’s too big a risk to take. Just a little soap and water or some hand sanitizer could prevent serious illness or even save your life! Be an empowered patient and demand good hand hygiene, because there may be a 50% chance that your caregiver isn’t taking care of that for you.
Michal Klau-Stevens is a professional speaker and healthcare consumer advocate. She is a maternity consultant, pregnancy coach, and expert on consumer healthcare care issues, Past President of BirthNetwork National, a Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator, and mother. Her website is TheBirthLady.INFO. Find her on LinkedIn and on Facebook at The Birth Lady page!