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.

Health Care that Works: Integrated Medicine

President Obama speaks at a Portsmouth, NH event on August 11 (Darren McCollester/Getty)
President Obama speaks at a Portsmouth, NH event on August 11 (Darren McCollester/Getty)

Last night’s NewsHour included a segment that gives me hope: a clip of President Obama citing integrated medical systems that are actually working, followed by an excellent in-depth piece on the Billings MT clinic that proves the point. Billings is only one of such examples.

How do they work? By getting everybody under one roof and coordinating patient care. By letting different specialties work together, rather than sending a patient from one to another to another. By compensating doctors with salaries. This last is a sticking point: if you own a piece of the MRI business, for example, you might just be inclined to order more MRIs. Or you’re tied to the work-harder-get-richer principle. But more and more doctors seem interested in having a life, in not being on call 24 hours a day, in earning good money (integrated system compensations compare well with private practices) while focusing on patient care — without over-prescribing and over-ordering to guard against getting sued.

Why does this make such good sense? Because most patients (not all) sing its praises. Because integrated care saves money by keeping people healthier, reducing unnecessary procedures, keeping people out of hospitals… the list goes on.

My oncologist retired a year after a 2006 breast cancer episode. I went to meet my new choice on the 8th floor of Kaiser Medical Center in March, 2008. She looked at lab tests (2nd floor), spotted anemia, said I shouldn’t be anemic, ordered colonoscopy/endoscopy. G.I. doc (2nd floor) found celiac disease in June, connected me to nutritionist (across the street) and to endocrinologist (6th floor) who helped me design diet plus vitamins etc so I’m healthy again. Physical therapist (4th floor) discussed fitness plans. All of these specialists, my surgeon (2nd floor) and my primary care doc (4th floor) are friends. All respond to frequent e-mails within 24 hours, saving multiple calls and appointments. All post test results, etc on my personal web page. Thus, over a 3-year period: one overnight hospitalization for mastectomy, one out-patient procedure, a reasonable number of appointments, healthy patient.

Not everybody loves Kaiser, or the other clinics being studied. But it’s a model that works.