Here we are, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. If there is one thing we hear over and over again, it is the importance of washing our hands. While this is undoubtedly important in the current situation, it obscures the fact that personal hygiene among medical providers has long been honored more in the breach than in the observance.
It hasn’t been that long since medicine discovered what is called germ theory: that bacteria exist and cause infections. In 1846, germ theory was still unknown and an obscure Hungarian doctor, Ignaz Semmelweis, was puzzled. His hospital had two maternity wards. The first was staffed by midwives and the second by young doctors and medical students. Why were the women on the men’s side dying many times more often of fevers after childbirth? He studied every difference he could between the men’s side and the midwife side. Finally, he noticed that often the men were coming directly from autopsies and delivering babies. Perhaps there was something on the dead bodies that was causing the fevers among the women. He required all the male doctors to dip their hands in a lye solution before delivering babies. Remarkably, or perhaps unremarkably, the death rate fell to the same rate as the midwife side. He was ridiculed for his ideas and died in an insane asylum. It was not until decades later that Pasteur and others validated his theories.
In spite of the fact that for over 150 years, medicine has understood the need for washing hands and good hygiene practices, patients continue to be infected by doctors and nurses in hospitals and in offices throughout the United States. It is sometimes said that a doctor‘s tie has more infectious microbes on it than the floor of a public bathroom. At least the bathroom floor occasionally gets washed with an antiseptic solution. The doctor wears the same tie over and over again while he goes from patient to patient.
Nurses don’t wear ties but still transmit infections. They see many patients in hospitals and many are not as diligent about washing their hands as they should be. The World Health Organization has started a “Clean care is safe care” initiative to remind healthcare professionals of the importance of washing their hands. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, one in 25 patients acquires a medical care-related infection during a hospitalization. In 2014, this added up to 722,000 infections. While all hospitals have programs to require handwashing between patient contacts, it obviously doesn’t always happen.
Don’t let a doctor or nurse pass an infection along to you because they didn’t wash their hands. Oftentimes, the sink is in the room and you can watch to see if the nurse or doctor uses it. Be polite but firm and ask them to wash their hands. It is your body and your life. You deserve the basic protections of handwashing.