Hand washing woes: Why medical workers skip the task

The simplest thing medical professionals can do to prevent the spread of infection and disease is to wash their hands before touching a patient. So, why don't they do it?

Undercover researchers studying medical workers in a hospital discovered that about 78 percent of them failed to wash their hands properly before interacting with patients. Given the importance of the act -- and the level of education of the people involved -- that's a stunning rate of failure.

Why the huge lapses? Researchers concluded that there's a direct relationship between the workload a doctor or nurse is handling and the rate of failure when it comes to properly washing up. Doctors and nurses who are rushed may simply overlook the step in a hurry to treat an emergency. However, doctors and nurses also overlook hand washing when they are tired, especially at the end of a long shift.

How can these lapses be combated? First, hospitals can do more to encourage their employees to wash their hands. They can place dispensers of antiseptic wash in every room -- located as close to the doorway as possible.

Hospitals can also place monitors on washing stations and use video evidence combined with instructive feedback to educate specific offenders about their lapses. It's easier to get compliance when you can present someone with evidence that they are forgetting such a crucial step.

Patients can also take a stand. There's nothing wrong with politely stopping a doctor or nurse and saying something like, "I'm sorry, but I'm worried about infection. I think you forgot to wash your hands." By approaching the issue without being confrontational, a patient can more easily reach out to medical professionals who may just be absent-minded, tired or rushed.

Ultimately, it's important for patients to remember that hospital-acquired infections are not just "one of those things that happens." They're preventable acts of malpractice. If one happens, it's time to explore your legal options.

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