NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

A Simple Way To Cut Hospital Infections: Hand Washing

November 14, 2002

Hospital administrators don't like to talk about it, but one out of every 20 patients in U.S. hospitals contracts an infection. While some infections are probably unavoidable, medical experts say that many can be prevented by a simple precaution: doctors must wash their hands after examining one patient before seeing another.

  • The 1-in-20 rate means that two million Americans are infected each year -- and an estimated 90,000 of them die as a result.
  • It is estimated that one-third to three-quarters of infections are preventable.
  • Regular hand washing by physicians and staff is crucial to bringing down the infection rate -- but research reveals that physicians clean their hands between patients only 48 percent of the time, and only 60 percent of the time in the very best hospitals.
  • A serious bloodstream infection can add $30,000 to a hospital bill.

Doctors complain that hospitals are putting cost-cutting ahead of infection control by doing away with specially trained IV teams and cutting back on some precautions for sterilization. Another problem is the liberal use of antibiotics, because germs develop resistance to one antibiotic after another.

Meanwhile, hospitals are doing their best to keep their infection rates secret. But that shouldn't stop patients from asking for that information from their doctor -- since the rate is known.

Experts advise patients to get out of the hospital as soon as possible, keep a hospital-approved hand cleaner at bedside and ask staff to use it and request that only essential personnel be in the operating room during a procedure.

A groundswell of public protest might pull away the veil of secrecy surrounding hospitals' infection rates, and that would surely promote better hygiene.

Source: Betsy McCaughey (Hudson Institute), "Physician, Wash Thyself," Forbes, Nov. 11, 2002.

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