To helping hands in hospitals: Wash 'em!
Admit it -- you cringe every time you see someone walk out of a public rest room without washing their hands. It happens everywhere, especially at sports venues such as Heinz Field and PNC Park, according to one study.
Most of the time we crack a joke about it, hoping the culprit won't be handing over our beer at the concession stand. But when it comes to handwashing in hospitals, that's where we should draw the line.
Sadly, our hospitals are filled with dirty hands. They belong to physicians, nurses, hundreds of other employees and visitors. They are the hands that touch our loved ones and pass on potentially deadly germs.
Dirty hands are the top reason why hospital-acquired infections remain a huge problem in hospitals. On Friday, the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council reported that more than 21,000 people contracted at least one hospital infection in 2010. Although that's a tiny fraction of the 1.8 million patients admitted to hospitals every year, those 21,000 people are sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, grandmas and grandpas.
Hospitals in the past several years have tried their best to address the problem. You can't get past the lobby at UPMC Presbyterian without seeing a waist-high dispenser of white foam that promises to kill off the pesky germs. You see dispensers in the cafeteria, waiting rooms and patient rooms.
Their mere presence doesn't mean the machines are used. Over the years, I've heard from readers complaining of health care workers who won't get near hand sanitizers. I've seen it myself, once confronting a head nurse at Children's Hospital who walked into a patient room without washing her hands.
Some hospitals in America, including Miami Children's Hospital, have resorted to policing workers with special sensors that track hand washing. If they approach a patient's bed without hand washing, their name badge starts buzzing. An alert also goes to the worker's supervisor.
The cost of caring for patients who pick up infections is high: Medicare pays about $21,378 for a patient with an infection, compared to $6,709 for a patient without one. In Miami, savings in infection-related care have paid for the sensors four times over, said Barb Simmonds, the hospital's chief of infection control and prevention.
She hasn't ruled out punishing workers who don't wash their hands.
The sensors have not only reduced infection rates, they've cut down on the supply of available excuses from workers, Simmonds said.
"I washed my hands, you just didn't see me," used to be a common one, Simmonds said.
We're not quite that advanced here in Pittsburgh. At best, most hospitals resort to sporadic monitoring. At St. Clair Hospital in Mt. Lebanon, the equivalent of a mystery shopper roams clinical areas once a month, peeking into rooms to see if those hands are being properly cleaned. Other hospitals do the same.
Hospitals often claim these efforts are effective, but the health care council numbers tell another story. Hospital workers need to get more serious about hand washing.
Even my kids know when to wash their hands.