Excuse me, Doctor, but did you wash your hands? | Straight Talk from the Stanford ER

Excuse me, Doctor, but did you wash your hands?

After last night’s shift in the ER, my hands feel like sandpaper. It’s due to the amount of hand washing I do – before and after every patient, and sometimes in between patients - “just because” (in the ER we come in contact with some very interesting “stuff”).

It turns out that one of the most important measures healthcare workers can implement to stop the spread of disease and save lives is to establish a careful, consistent practice of washing their hands “religiously” between patients. While this may be intuitive, it is an unfortunate fact that the hand washing habit is not as “ingrained” as we’d like. In fact, it appears that health care providers only comply with strict hand washing about 40-60% of the time.

Our hospital, like many others is mounting a campaign to educate and remind all our patient care providers of the importance of hand hygiene. In the ER, we have sinks all around and have placed alcohol gel hand cleaner dispensers strategically throughout our clinical areas. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association* a few years ago confirmed that proper use of these hand cleaners is just as effective in reducing the risk of spreading infection as traditional scrubbing with soap and water.

So, for my readers, here’s the point: If you find yourself in an ER (or even in your private physician’s office), you should feel empowered to politely ask all your care providers (doctors, nurses, technicians, etc.) if they have just washed their hands. Even though I’m good about my hand washing habits, I’m now trying to develop the practice of doing it right in front of patients as I walk into their room and introduce myself – so patients and their loved ones know I care about their safety and health.

Well, time to go put some more lotion on my hands…

Stay alert and stay safe.

- Dr. Bob

* Parienti J J, Thibon P, Heller R, et al: Hand-rubbing with an aqueous alcoholic solution vs traditional surgical hand-scrubbing and 30-day surgical site infection rates: a randomized equivalence study. JAMA 2002;288:722-727.
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About the Author

The Stanford Emergency Room is the center of emergency care at Stanford University.