Hand Washing to Prevent Infections

Hand hygiene wash
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What is the most important step to preventing infection in a hospital setting? Well, from the title of this article, you probably guessed it: hand hygiene. While this sounds simple, and easy for everyone involved, there is a surprisingly low rate of compliance with recommendations for hand hygiene in the healthcare setting.


Infections in hospitals and healthcare settings are a serious problem and a concern of most any patient.  Every single year, about 2 million patients get an infection in a hospital in the United States. That's not 2 million people who are treated for infections in a hospital, but 2 million who enter a hospital without a particular infection, and get an infection just from being in the hospital setting. Of those 2 million infections, 90,000 of those patients die as a result of their healthcare-acquired​ infection.

Every day I talk to patients about risks of surgery, including risks of infection. Many of those patients want to know what can be done to prevent a risk of infection. Well, there are many steps to take, but the most important is to ensure that your healthcare team is taking appropriate hand hygiene precautions in the hospital.

Hand Hygiene: What Works?

Hand hygiene is a term used to describe a number of ways to prevent the transmission of infection through a healthcare provider's hands to a patient. Different types of hand hygiene can include hand washing, cleansing with gels, or even wearing gloves. The critical component is that the appropriate type of hand hygiene is performed before and after every patient contact. This should include any time your healthcare provider has contact with a patient or the patient's environment (such as their bed or sheets).

As far as compliance, the numbers are not good. Many observational studies have found that healthcare providers perform poorly when it comes to proper hand hygiene, averaging about 40% compliance with recommendations. There are several ways to boost compliance numbers, and one is to engage patients and families in asking their healthcare providers to comply with the recommendations for proper hand hygiene.

Bottom Line: Ask If You Don't See It!

The most important piece of advice for patients and family members is: if anyone entering your hospital room does not clean their hands in front of you, ask them to do it again. Many people are afraid of offending their doctor or nurse...I promise you, they will not be upset. While it is not acceptable, they may forget to clean every time, so simply ask: "would you mind washing your hands again, I'm very worried about getting an infection."

Another important piece of advice is not to restrict this to just your doctor or nurse. Your family and friends visiting in the hospital can also transmit infections, and they should be in the habit of cleaning their hands each time they enter or leave your room. Sinks, soaps, and gels should all be available near the entry of your room, and they should be well supplied for anyone who enters or leaves.

Preventing infections doesn't necessarily mean expensive and complicated treatments. In fact, it can be simple. However, it is critical that everyone is being careful and responsible to ensure every patient is safe while they're in the hospital.

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Article Sources
  • "Hand Hygiene in Healthcare Settings" Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last Updated: May 1, 2014.
  • Pittet D, Allegranzi B, Boyce J. The World Health Organization Guidelines on Hand Hygiene in Health Care and their consensus recommendations. Infect Control Hosp Epidemiol 2009;30(7):611-622. doi:10.1086/600379.
  • Phillips DP. "Hand Hygiene: Are We Doing Enough to Ensure Adherence to Guidelines?" AAOS Now November 2015.