HealthDecember 06, 2016

The dirt on handwashing for healthcare

It is National Handwashing Awareness Week through December 10, 2016. And while it may seem like a no-brainer for healthcare professionals, the spread of germs due to ineffective hadwashing is still a concern throughout the healthcare community, even in the developed world.

Why? According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one significant reason for poor handwashing compliance is simple logistics. If there aren’t enough sinks located at the point of care and an ample supply of hygiene products close at hand, professionals aren’t likely to step away from patients or interrupt work to seek them out.

But even with the best, easiest-to-access hygiene supplies and facilities available, WHO reports healthcare associated infections still concern 5-15% of patients in developed countries. That can jump as high as 37% for patients in ICUs.

In addition to protecting patients from the spread of potentially deadly germs, handwashing also protects healthcare providers from colonization or infection caused by germs acquired from the patient.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), studies show that while healthcare providers may need to clean their hands as many as 100 times per 12-hour shift, some only wash less than half of the times required. In honor of National Handwashing Awareness Week, let’s look at some simple facts that can help us all clean up our acts:

  • Soap vs. hand sanitizer — Healthcare providers are encouraged to use alcohol-based hand sanitizers, as they are more effective germ killers. However, traditional soap-and-water washing is still recommended when hands are visibly dirty or when there is known or suspected exposure to Clostridium difficile or Bacillus anthracis. Alcohol-based sanitizers containing 60-95% alcohol are most effective at killing germs quickly. They denature proteins, which is a different process than what occurs when using antibiotic hand sanitizer, thus they are unlikely to allow germs a chance to adapt and develop resistance.
  • Resistance is futile — The CDC cites research that shows handwashing helps slow the troubling rise of antibiotic resistance. The concept is simple: Handwashing reduces spread of sickness, therefore reducing the likelihood a patient would require or use additional antibiotics.
  • You missed a spot — CDC research shows that healthcare providers using alcohol-based hand sanitizer still frequently miss three key spots when handwashing: thumbs, fingertips, and between fingers.
  • Longer isn’t better — While healthcare providers must thoroughly clean hands, including forearms and under fingernails, before patient exams or surgery, the CDC says that prolonged scrub session won’t raise your level of cleanliness. The germs destroyed by 10 minutes of handwashing are about equal to the amount destroyed in 2 minutes of handwashing.
  • Don’t put a ring on it — Some studies have shown that the skin under rings contains more bacteria than the rest of the fingers. While there are not yet any studies that prove ring-wearing can increase the spread of dangerous germs, going ring-less might be a cleaner way to go.
  • Chip shot — Fingernail polish does NOT increase the amount germs present on your hands … if it’s freshly applied. However, chipped fingernail polish may harbor bacteria.

Handwashing may be a simple and obvious safety measure, but it can have a huge impact on health. For quick reminders, check out these guides from the Association for Professionals in Infection Control (APIC).


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