A Matter of Life and Death: Why Clean Hands Count


Author: Mary Curtin Pierce, RN
Infection Preventionist
Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital

If I close my eyes, I can still hear my mother yell from the house, “Girls, time to come inside and get washed up for supper!” The three of us kids, filthy from a day of mud pies and tire swings, would charge up the stairs to the bathroom sink.  Watching the dirty water swirl down the drain, and the now dingy bar of soap tossed back into the dish, it perplexed me as to why she was always so insistent on hand washing.

My mother knew all sorts of things that have come in handy in my adult life. However, it wasn’t until my first class in college to become a nurse that it became apparent to me how truly important it is to practice good hand hygiene. It’s important in everyday life, before eating, after toileting, or any time there is a risk of contaminating your hands with any germs or dirt.

But in health care, it becomes a matter of life and death.

Here’s the dirt on hand hygiene:

Let’s start with some basics. Health care facilities in the United States are monitored by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for rates of infection. A hospital acquired infection (HAI) is an infection that is caused by the health care system itself. In 2016 the CDC stated we had an overall decline in reported HAI’s from 2015.  This is positive and exciting news, but there is still so much to be done. (CDC, 2016)

You may be asking yourself at this point, what does this have to do with hand hygiene? The answer is simple, so simple that we even expect little kids to do it before supper. Washing your hands significantly decreases the rate of transmission of disease. This becomes even more important when we talk about the health care setting.

Health care teams are responsible to wash their hands as outlined by the World Health Organization, but studies have found most health care team members actually only washed their hands less than half of the recommended time. What does that have to do with you as a patient?  ASK. The CDC gives out some great suggestions on how to ask.

“Don’t be afraid to use your voice: it’s ok to ask your health care provider questions, such as:

  • ‘I didn’t see you clean your hands when you came in, would you mind cleaning them again before you examine me?’
  • ‘I’m worried about germs spreading in the hospital. Will you please clean your hands once more before you start my treatment?” (CDC, 2016)

More and more often evidence suggests we should be teaching our patients when and how to wash their hands with much more frequency. Patients can become infected in their hospital environment, but their visitors can act as vectors to spread disease too.

The CDC recommends these steps to protect yourself by asking:

  • “Did you clean your own hands? Did you ask those around you to do the same?” (CDC, 2016)

They even give an example of an easy way to ask loved ones to join in protecting both themselves and you:

  • “I saw you clean your hands when you arrived some time ago, but would you mind cleaning them again?” (CDC,2016)

It’s going to take the entire community, patients and health care teams alike, to decrease the risks of spreading diseases transmitted by poor hand hygiene. Here at Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital, we are asking everyone to join forces with us. Ask all your health care team members if they’re doing their part to protect you and our community. We have brightened up our posters and updated our educational efforts on proper hand washing and why clean hands count. We hope you find them informational.

We are excited to work together and spread the word, not the germs!

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