Doctor, wash your hands!

Updated: 2011-10-30 07:47

By Mike Peters (China Daily)

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 Doctor, wash your hands!

It's one of the oldest jokes in medicine: Don't go to the hospital, it's full of sick people and germs. But public health officials say simple handwashing by medical staff can cut hospital infections by more than half.

One of the main places for the spread of infections is in hospitals. Mike Peters with the anecdotes.

When Dr Didier Pittet, director of the infection-control program at University of Geneva Hospitals, showed his video to Chinese health professionals in Beijing this summer, he wasn't trying to be funny. But his audience was rolling in the aisles.

The scene in the video first shows a nurse washing her hands, and then joining the surgical team around the patient as the doctor arrives. As the doctor joins the group, takes up his scalpel and prepares to make an incision, the nurse's hand shoots out and grabs his wrist. "Doctor, did you wash your hands?" she asks.

Pittet is the front man for an international campaign to get hospital workers to wash their hands frequently during the day - and put peer pressure on their colleagues to do the same.

"Infections are waiting for you at the hospital door," Pittet says "Every day, 1.4 million patients are infected in hospitals, and studies suggest 60 percent of those can be prevented with simple hand-washing."

So why don't highly educated doctors do the obvious smart thing?

"We did an observational study and found that a working surgeon has up to 22 opportunities for exposure every hour," Pittet says. "It takes a doctor one to one-and-a-half minutes to step away to a sink and wash hands vigorously with soap and water."

If that was done at every exposure, that can add up to 30 minutes of hand-washing every hour, he says, which is simply not practical.

One solution: Alcohol wipes, which take about 15 seconds and can be kept at the point of care, eliminating walks to the sink. That's a protocol change that's gaining slow acceptance, especially among Muslim populations in Africa where contact with alcohol is shunned.

But, a low-cost "halal alcohol" made without fermentation from sugar-cane waste has been introduced in 18 countries.

Some patients around the world have worried about the cosmetic effect of alcohol on their skin, but Pettit says soap kills skin cells and causes water to evaporate from skin - so alcohol can actually be safer.

Global campaigns for clean hands aren't only aimed at careless doctors in hospitals. Worldwide Handwashing Day on Oct 15 is designed to send the message to restaurant workers and everyday folks whose hands may be spreading germs.

If none of this has convinced you to run to the sink for a scrub-up, consider this: A recent UK-wide study of mobile phones found that one in six carries fecal matter, probably because their owners are not washing their hands with soap after using the toilet.

Researchers said some of the phones were contaminated with E. coli, fecal bacteria that can upset stomachs and cause serious food poisoning, such as in the fatal O157 outbreak in Germany in June.

(China Daily 10/30/2011 page3)