On top of whatever illness or injury caused them to be admitted to a hospital in the first place, about 1 in 25 hospital patients must also deal with infection resulting from the care they receive.

National statistics

According to a 2014 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) survey, these health care-associated infections (HAI) are a major threat to patient safety that could often be prevented by a very simple intervention: proper handwashing.

In a statement announcing the “Clean Hands Count” campaign last May, CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. said, “Patients depend on their medical team to help them get well, and the first step is making sure health care professionals aren’t exposing them to new infections. Clean hands really do count and, in some cases, can be a matter of life and death.”

A preventable problem

The Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology finds HAIs problematic enough that they’ve included the issue in the public policy agenda “Voice for Infection Prevention.” In the document’s FAQ about HAIs, “unclean hands of health care workers” are specified as one way patients acquire infections while hospitalized, and explains that many HAIs are “preventable through the implementation of proven, evidence-based infection prevention protocols and procedures.”

“…Health care providers may need to wash their hands up to 100 times in a 12-hour shift.”

Promoting hygiene

According to the CDC, health care professionals clean their hands less than half as often as they should. Thus, “Clean Hands Count” aims to convince patients, their loved ones and health care workers to do their part to prevent HAIs.

Patients and their advocates can help promote good hand hygiene by asking health care professionals to wash their hands before providing care if they notice the step was skipped. In addition, though, the CDC wants to debunk myths about hand hygiene, such as the fear that alcohol-based sanitizer contributes to antibiotic resistance or can damage hands more than soap and water. In fact, the CDC says, hand sanitizer causes less irritation than soap and water, and kills germs in a way that does not cause antibiotic resistance.

Understanding resistance

The CDC notes there are many reasons health care workers might not adhere to good hand hygiene guidelines, including: handwashing agents cause irritation, inconvenient sinks, insufficient soap, being too busy or understaffed, a patient needs immediate attention, or believing infection is a low risk.

Nevertheless, the CDC says health care providers may need to wash their hands up to 100 times in a 12-hour shift. While there are challenges, handwashing is a relatively simple thing that may be the key to preventing the spread of HAIs in a health care setting.