Hand washing is an obvious deterrent to the spread of disease, and as such, you would expect doctors and other healthcare professionals to observe proper hand washing techniques at work. However, a new study says that although most doctors are washing their hands when you are in their presence, they may not be so diligent when no one is watching.
The study on doctors and hand washing was presented via the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology or APIC. The hand washing study concluded that doctors across the country are guilty of something called the Hawthorne Effect. That is, the doctors are more likely to follow correct protocol when someone is watching them. Of course, the Hawthorne Effect doesn’t only apply to doctors and their hand washing habits — everyone is susceptible to this particular phenomenon. In fact, the Hawthorne Effect is the root of the old maxim: “Character is how you behave when no one is watching.”
So how was the hand washing study performed? Over the course of six months, 15 volunteers were chosen to secretly blend in with hospital staff in addition to five infection prevention nurses that the hospital staff were made aware of. The volunteers were trained to observed the hand washing diligence of employees at a San Jose, California, hospital and report back their findings. When the results were in, the difference in hand washing compliance between the two groups was considerable. Compared to the findings of the infection prevention nurses, the secretly embedded volunteers found that healthcare workers washed their hands over 30 percent less.
Maricris Niles, an infection prevention analyst at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in California, commented on the findings.
“The level of hand hygiene compliance when staff did not know they were being watched was surprising. This study demonstrated to us that hand hygiene observations are influenced by the Hawthorne Effect and that unknown observers should be used to get the most accurate hand hygiene data.”
Transmission of infections is a big risk in hospitals and clinics across the country, especially among doctors and nurses who can see dozens of patients per day. If proper hand washing techniques aren’t observed, that risk of infection transmission only increases. According to the World Health Organization, healthcare workers are recommended to wash their hands before and after touching a patient and/or their surroundings, before performing any medical procedure and, of course, if they come into contact with any bodily fluids.
The fact, however, is that even if healthcare workers are observing the proper amount of times when it comes to hand washing techniques, they may not be washing their hands correctly.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, a proper hand washing technique involves the following steps:
First, you should wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap. Next, you should lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Often, when someone washes their hands, they lather the backs of their hands, but they forget about under their nails and between their fingers. Another step that is often missed when it comes to hand washing is the actual length of time. Far too many people only wash their hands for less than five seconds, when the CDC actually recommends that individuals scrub their hands together for at least 20 seconds. How long is that? The CDC says that you can sing the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end two times to time it out. After scrubbing your hands for the recommended 20 seconds, you should rinse your hands under the water and dry your hands thoroughly using a towel or air dryer.
[Feature Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images]