When MDs Don’t Wash Hands


What kills as many Americans as aids, breast cancer and auto accidents combined? A new super bug? Avian bird flu? How about sars? No. The answer is lethal infections contracted by otherwise healthy individuals while hospitalized for even routine procedures (New York Sun, February 9).

Shockingly, over 2 million people in the United States will contract an infection while in hospital this year, and about 90,000 will die. That equals America’s war dead in Korea and Vietnam combined—every year.

“It is a tragic irony that each year … about one [person] every five minutes … die[s] from an infection contracted in the one place they should feel safest,” says Dr. Betsy McCaughey, former lieutenant governor of New York State and founder and chairman of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths, who is working to get hospitals to put more focus on preventing infection.

Hospitals are obviously a home to the many types of infectious organisms that patients bring with them when they come for treatment. If hospitals are not careful, the bugs can breed and spread to other patients. Hands, gloves, clothing, utensils, stethoscopes and a multitude of other equipment can carry organisms from patient to patient.

That is why Dr. Mark Dougherty, an epidemiologist, describes today’s hospitals as “swimming in a sea of bacteria” (Lexington Herald-Leader, March 26).

The problem is, “[M]ost hospitals have not made preventing infections a top priority,” says Dr. McCaughey, who also notes that many hospital administrators bluntly admit it is a matter of money and that they just “can’t afford to take these precautions.”

McCaughey claims that today’s medical establishment places far less emphasis on teaching hygiene than it did 50 years ago. Why? Simple focus on hygiene has been replaced by a widespread and liberal use of antibiotics. Dr. Barbara Gordon remarks that years ago hospitals made sure doctors received freshly laundered white uniforms every day, implying that uniforms doctors wear today are oftentimes not as clean as they should be (New York Sun, op. cit.). As a result of poor hygienic practices, McCaughey says one out of every 20 patients will contract an infection during his or her hospital stay (Modern Healthcare, January 30).

What should patients do? Simple as it sounds, Dr. McCaughey says you need to ask that hospital staff clean their hands before treating you. Studies show that health-care professionals fail to wash their hands between patients approximately half the time. Hospital staff wear gloves because they are afraid of contracting infections from the patients. Make sure medical staff put on new gloves before contacting you.

Preventable deaths due to infections caused by the failure of health-care staff to perform simple sanitary procedures is just one symptom of the failure of modern medicine today.