NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


July 22, 2005

Wash your hands, save lives. Every doctor and nurse knows clean hands prevent the spread of germs that cause infections. Yet thorough hand cleansing is so inconsistent that health officials have embarked on massive education campaigns to remind clinicians of what ought to be obvious, says USA Today.

The consequences are immense.

  • Some 2 million hospital patients contract infections each year.
  • About 90,000 die as a result, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP).
  • Pennsylvania, the first state to release data on hospital-acquired infections, found last week that at least 1,500 preventable deaths occurred in 2004.

Many causes contribute to the problem, but inadequate hand cleansing is perhaps the most basic.

Hospital infections aren't new. Yet proven methods that could cut the number of deaths in half aren't followed. Complacent attitudes that infections are inevitable, resistance to changing established routines and hospital systems that make it difficult to do the right thing are part of the problem. Some solutions aren't complicated but require following stricter protocols, says USA Today:

  • Veterans Administration hospitals doubled the rate of hand cleansing by making disinfectant dispensers more accessible; VA officials promoted the use of more effective alcohol-based gels instead of soap and water and let everyone know they'd track results.
  • Patients should receive antibiotics in the hour before a surgeon makes his incision, but that occurs a little over half the time, according to the American Health Quality Association; surgical infections at hospitals that followed the guideline were cut 27 percent.

Infections can never be eliminated. Patients and visitors bring new ones into hospitals every day. Nonetheless, relatively simple fixes can save lives. A stronger commitment to do what we know works is needed, says USA Today.

Source: Editorial, "Watch their hands," USA Today, July 21, 2005.


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