Hospital Safety 101: Didn't Mom Teach You to Wash Your Hands?

San Francisco Chronicle Washington Bureau writer Carolyn Lochhead reported today on a new idea somebody had about making hospitals safer: get folks to wash their hands. Hello?

The president of a leading medical standards organization announced a new program Thursday that is designed to improve health care safety practices, starting with a rigorous approach toward hand-washing by hospital staffers.

And this is serious business.

Hand-washing failures contribute to infections linked to health care that kill almost 100,000 Americans a year and cost U.S. hospitals $4 billion to $29 billion a year to combat, said Dr. Mark Chassin, who leads the Joint Commission, which sets standards and accredits hospitals and health care organizations.

Chassin’s announcement came after Hearst Newspapers published the results of an investigation, “Dead by Mistake,” which reported that 247 people die every day in the United States from infections contracted in hospitals.

Anyone who has ever come home from surgery with an infection, or more specifically anyone whose spouse has come home from surgery with an infection (nasty-wound-tending not having been fully explained in those for-better-or-for-worse lines) will applaud the new program, but it’s hard not to wonder what has taken the medical profession so long. Hospitals have found, Lochhead reports, that “caregivers washed their hands less than 50 percent of the time when they should.”

If there’s ever been a good example of potential savings to pay for universal health care, this is one to top the list. Consumers, we who would do well to wash our own hands when visiting or inhabiting hospitals, owe a debt of gratitude to the Joint Commission (and to Hearst Newspapers for the excellent ‘Dead by Mistake’ series.)

Maybe more sinks will be adorned with the sign that gave my husband and me a healthy chuckle during a recent visit to the Kaiser emergency room:

“Hand-wash unto others” it read, “as you would have them hand-wash unto you.”

Hospitals urged to strictly enforce hand-washing.


  1. There are a few issues inside this, though…one is patients’ reluctance to ask everyone who comes near them, to touch them, in the hospital “Have you washed your hands?” You hate to be challenging and who knows if they will answer truthfully? I wrote a piece about my hospital stay, counting 35 people who came near me in those three days.

    One of the greatest medical advances for women came in 1847 (geek alert) when Hungarian physician Semmelweis realized that puerperal fever (doctors not washing their hands between patients) was killing 10 to 35% of mothers giving birth. He instituted hand-washing and sterilization and the rate plummeted. He’s my hero.

    1. I’m equally, 3-babies-worth, a fan of Dr. Semmelweis. If the responsibility for insuring hands have been washed around them ever falls on patients we’re in deep trouble.

  2. In addition to hand washing, might we add nail clipping? Has anyone noticed how long the nails are on some of these nurses/technicians? There have been many studies demonstrating how many germs lurk beneath polished nails…

    1. When I was a hospice volunteer, pre-government-intervention & prohibition of such things, I did my share of toenail clipping. We (hospice teams) had macabre but extensive discussions about nails and cleanliness. You’re so right.

  3. We found at our clinic most do not wash long enough. We installed a number of waterless handwashing stations with special “scrub soaps” and compliance went to 99%. We just installed dispensers all over the facility with an alcohol based sanitizer for patients and staff. The CDC said this is the most important method of preventing the spread of flu and colds.

  4. I think everyone who skips the hand-wash knows he or she should do it, and just doesn’t think it matters. Maybe the new program can convince people it matters. Surely my daughter, a nurse, has never skipped a handwash… I’m going to remind her just in case.

  5. didn’t we figure this out 150 years ago with the discovery of germs? Seems I’ve seen a couple of movies about this…Florence Nightingale anyone?

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: