Editorial

Wash Your Hands Already

There's just no excuse for health care workers not to wash their hands close to 100 percent of the time, all the time.

By Ryan McGreal
Published May 01, 2009

The germ theory of disease dates back to the 1400s and has been widely accepted by the medical community since at least the late nineteenth century.

Louis Pasteur (from whose name we get pasteurization, the practice of briefly heating food and drinks to slow the growth of bacteria) did his most important work between 1860 and 1864. Dr. Joseph Lister (from whose name we get the antibacterial mouthwash Listerine) followed up on Pasteur's work to invent antiseptics.

Around the same time, Florence Nightingale was combining her groundbreaking work in nursing and statistical analysis to demonstrate that improvements in sanitation could dramatically reduce mortality rates and improve outcomes for patients in medical facilities.

Suffice it to say that I had assumed that the days of chirugeons striding from one patient to the next while proudly displaying their blood-drenched robes were over. I assumed further that hand-washing among health care professionals would be automatic and ubiquitous.

So when I read the provincial scorecard showing that hand-washing compliance at Henderson Hospital is an appalling 35.68 percent, I just about fell out of my chair.

At least Henderson is a local anomaly. The other area hospitals are considerably better:

Yet even compliance in the 60-65 percent range seems unjustifiably poor among people with comprehensive professional training in the treatment and prevention of disease.

It's no surprise to see the highest compliance at Joseph Brant after last year's painful c. difficile odyssey; but every hospital should be on board with this.

There's just no excuse for health care workers not to wash their hands close to 100 percent of the time, all the time.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By Anonymous (anonymous) | Posted May 01, 2009 at 11:31:10

Washing hands is only part of the problem. We should also be seriously questioning the cleaning/janitorial standards of all hospitals - not what it used to be.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted May 01, 2009 at 12:18:26

Ryan, what is really scary is the number of people who do not wash after using restrooms.

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By Anon (anonymous) | Posted May 01, 2009 at 13:27:45

I'm sure we all did that lab in High School: collect samples around the school, let them incubate over the weekend, and see the bacterial growth on Monday. Not surprising, some of the "dirtiest" spots were those most used by students; caf tables, drinking fountains & doorknobs.

I agree that washing hands is only part of the solution. As pointed out a couple weeks ago, St Joe's janitorial services were slashed in favour of cutting medical services. But at what cost? A norwalk outbreak?

Hopefully Hospital Execs take note and make it a point to bring the proper funding back into sanitation and janitorial services ASAP, or will end up costing them more and more in the future while they're struggling to fight outbreaks and maintain their name as reputable medical centres.

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By Steeltown (registered) | Posted May 01, 2009 at 13:34:43

Over the past few years most hospitals have privatized janitorial duties, for HHS it's Sodexo that got the contract.

What really worries me is that Mohawk Hospital Services (they currently do all the linen cleaning) is working on a contract to do all the autoclaving of medical/surgical equipments for HHS. How can they guarantee no contamination from Chedoke to each hospital in HHS? Scary considering infection is the number one concern after a successful surgery.

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By Nitty Gritty (anonymous) | Posted May 01, 2009 at 14:30:36

You'd almost think hospital administrators have been so distracted by fundraising, selling naming opportunities and city building they've neglected to cover the basics. Nothing could be futher from the truth.

The problem lies in metaphysics. Pasteur, Nightingale (I seem to suffer a Lister Block): those folks were scientists and as such their discoveries mere theories. We all know that cleanliness is next to Godliness. Crowd up to the right hand of God and hand wringing becomes unnecessary.

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted May 01, 2009 at 19:48:41

I've been working at St. Michael's in Toronto just for a month, and at least in my department, the compliance rate is exceptional.

That also seems to be why our hands all resemble cracked shoe leather at the moment, especially with the extra measures for the new virus as well requiring extra alcohol-based handwash... 115 outpatients coming through one room in a day one after the other, plus cleanup, is already over 200 handwashes a day. When one's going through the floors dealing with inpatients, only alcohol-based wash is typically available, which is even worse than the soap-and-water for one's hands and not quite as effective.

I believe that's the same number(200-250 required handwashes a day) for most staff dealing with inpatients as well.

But the alternative... ugh. There's no excuse to risk not washing one's hands. None at all.

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted May 02, 2009 at 00:35:45

But in the corporate world it is always those at the lowest end of the totem pole that go. That means that there is more money and perks for those at the top, the affluent, the elite. It these people that have the money and ways to influence policy that always seems to hurt the people in both the short and long run.

Who says that they have all the say? Where does the voices from the people come into play? You know whether they are the workers or the patients?

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By Face (anonymous) | Posted May 06, 2009 at 01:55:16

Another prevention tactic. Avoid touching your face. Avoid rubbing and probing the eyes, nose, mouth and ears. One must realize they are touching there face to stop. It takes time but it works. Washing the hands is still most important though.

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