You’d think your doctor, of all people, would be diligent about washing her hands at work.
But many health-care workers are sloppy with their hand hygiene, according to a new study presented at the 2016 Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC) conference.
The researchers had undercover volunteers monitor hospital staff—including doctors, nurses, and even housekeeping—as they worked at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose, California.
The watchdogs observed nearly 4,000 instances when employees entered or exited a patient room when they should have washed their hands.
But 78 per cent of them didn’t wash up according to the standards endorsed by the World Health Organization to reduce the risk of spreading the infection to patients.
The criteria include using soap, washing all surfaces of your hands for 15 to 20 seconds, thoroughly drying your hands, and turning the faucet off with a towel to avoid touching the dirty surface.
Common mistakes made by hospital staff include using soap only on their palms, rather than their entire hands, and not using a paper towel to turn the faucet off, says infection preventionist Kelley Boston, M.P.H. But sometimes, they skip washing their hands entirely.
Hospital workers obviously know they should keep their hands clean, but the high pressure, exhausting nature of their work may interfere with their hygiene, research suggests.
A 2014 University of Pennsylvania study found that health workers washed their hands less when their workloads became more intense and toward the end of their shifts, when they’re mentally drained.
If a doctor or nurse is sprinting from one emergency to the next, taking the time to wash his or her hands may not seem like a priority, says Boston. A rushed hospital employee may also just plain forget.
But unwashed hands pose a real risk in spreading infections to patients, says Boston.
So next time you find yourself in a health-care setting, ask your nurse or doctor as they walk into the room: “I didn’t see you clean your hands, would you mind washing them before you touch me?” suggests Boston.
It’s not rude or inappropriate to bring it up, she says. As long as you avoid being accusatory in your tone, a busy health-care worker will often appreciate the reminder.