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Getting Medical Workers to Wash Hands Remains a Challenge

Posted on February 24, 2015 by Kelly Wolford
Our hospital malpractice attorneys in Albany, NY report on the importance of hand-washing in the prevention of healthcare-associated infections.

Getting medical workers to wash their hands should not be an issue in the 21st century. The spread of infection and disease due to unsanitary conditions or lack of proper disinfecting techniques is a type of hospital malpractice that we should only equate with hospitals back in the 1800s or early 1900s – not the hospitals of today.

However, as a National Public Radio (NPR) story recently pointed out, getting medical workers to wash their hands between treating patients actually remains a very serious problem.

The NPR story focused on a doctor who, back in the mid-1800s, was briefly able to save lives by championing hand-washing. The doctor observed a much higher mortality rate in the male doctor’s ward as compared to the midwives’ ward among women who contracted childbed fever during delivery. Childbed fever, also known as puerperal fever, is an infection of the female reproductive organs usually contracted during childbirth.

The doctor determined that the primary difference was that the male doctors had been conducting autopsies in addition to delivering babies. As the male doctors did not wash their hands in between, they were likely transferring cadaverous particles from their hands to the mother’s uterus during delivery. This was in turn causing the increased rate of childbed fever deaths.

The doctor ordered all medical staff to wash their hands (and instruments) with a chlorine solution. As a result, there was an immediate and dramatic decline in the rate of childbed fever.

Hand-Washing is Key in the Prevention of Healthcare-Associated Infections

What that doctor found to be true back in 1846 is still true today. Hand-washing is a vital tool in the prevention of healthcare-associated infections. It can stop the spread of many communicable diseases and save countless lives. In some cases, whether or not a medical worker washes his or her hands can be a matter of life and death.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were 721,800 cases of healthcare-associated infections occurring in acute care hospitals throughout the U.S. in 2011.

The breakdown of infection was:

Type of Infection No. of Cases
Pneumonia 157,500
Surgical site infections 157,500
Gastrointestinal illness 123,100
Other types of infections 118,500
Urinary tract infections 93,300
Primary bloodstream infections 71,900

Close to 75,000 patients lost their lives that year as a result of contracting a healthcare-associated infection during their hospital stay. Surveys conducted by the CDC went on to reveal that approximately one out of every 25 hospital patients will get a healthcare-associated infection.

New York’s 2013 progress report from the CDC revealed central line-associated bloodstream infections were 44 percent lower than the national baseline, and laboratory identified hospital-onset C. difficile infections were three percent lower.

Unfortunately, surgical site infections (SSIs) from colon surgeries were 31 percent higher than the national baseline, SSIs from abdominal hysterectomies were 22 percent higher, catheter-associated urinary tract infections were 26 percent higher and hospital-onset bloodstream infections were one percent higher.

Hospitals Struggle to Get Workers to Wash Their Hands

You would think it would not only be mandatory but commonsense for medical workers to wash their hands before treating the next patient. However, as the New York Times reports, hospitals are still struggling to get their workers to do so. In fact, most hospitals workers wash their hands only 30 percent of the time, before interacting with a patient, according to the Times.

This is why constant encouragement, reminders, training and rewards are necessary.  For instance, one hospital in Long Island has gone to such extreme measures as to place motion sensors in each of its intensive care rooms. When the motion sensor goes off, a video camera goes on, and its feed is transmitted to a company that has staff watching the videos to check for only one thing – whether the medical staff are washing their hands.

If you or a loved one has contracted a healthcare-associated infection at an Albany or Syracuse hospital, which may have been caused by a medical worker failing to wash his or her hands, it will be important to contact an attorney and protect your legal rights.