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Does Your Doctor Wash Her Hands?

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Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH - Blogs
By Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPHBoard-certified internistFebruary 12, 2015
From the WebMD Archives

When you’re at the doctor’s office, do you check to see if everyone washes or sanitizes their hands before they touch you?

Maybe you’re one of the many who don’t notice. Why would you? You’re focused on the problem at hand – the reason you came to the doctor, so the last thing on your mind is worrying about getting sick while you’re there at the doctor’s office.

Or, maybe you do notice, but you’re uncomfortable or nervous about telling the person taking care of you to first wash their hands.

Here’s your wake up call.  Getting an infection while you’re in a medical facility is a big problem  The CDC estimates 1 in 20 hospital patients gets an infection while they’re in the hospital being treated for something else. That’s 1.7 million infections a year with 99,000 deaths.

I was at the Patient Safety Movement Summit recently and there’s a lot going on to improve infection control practices and programs.  One key area is hand hygiene with programs to increase consistent use of alcohol sanitizer and good ol’ soap and water.

Why? We know hand washing is the single most effective tool we have to prevent transferring the bugs that cause infections from one person to the next. And we know that when health care workers wash their hands consistently, infections acquired in hospitals go down.  With so many infections resistant to antibiotics, washing your hands is a simple way to avoid horrible consequences.

And yet hand washing among health care workers, including doctors, was around 45% before aggressive, ongoing measures by infection control programs were rolled out a few years ago. But, even since implementing these programs, the consistency of hand-washing varies greatly from facility to facility. There are multiple reasons for the low hand washing numbers. But, for many health care workers, hand washing, which should be a reflex action, gets lost occasionally in the bustle of the day. The occasional miss of hand-washing adds up – resulting in increased risk of spreading preventable infections that cause significant harm.

So what can you do? Speak up. Whether it’s the nurse that checks your father’s blood pressure, measures your daughter’s height, draws your blood work, or the doctor that listens to your heart and looks in your baby’s ears, you are the best advocate.

I know it can be challenging asking someone to do something they’re supposed to know to do – but that’s okay. This isn’t about blaming or embarrassing the doctor, nurse or technician; it’s about protecting yourself and your loved ones. And you can say just that, “Excuse me XXX, please wash your hands before you touch me.”

You won’t be alone. The CDC and the World Health Organization are encouraging patients to speak up.  Many hospitals and clinics have videos and signs on the wall that tell patients and their loved ones to remind health care workers to wash their hands. They know you may ask them. So it’s not just okay, it’s the right thing to do.

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About the Author
Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH

Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH is a board-certified internal medicine doctor and a WebMD Medical Editor. She is on the team that makes sure all WebMD content is medically correct, current and understandable. She sees patients at the Women’s Wellness Clinic at the Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

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