Sometimes the most effective ways to protect patient safety are the simplest, such as preventing healthcare-associated infections with thorough handwashing.
People receiving health care are at risk of getting infections while being treated for something else. These infections are called healthcare-associated infections (HAIs). CDC estimates that on any given day, one in 31 hospitalized patients has at least one HAI, and every year 1 to 3 million HAIs affect residents of nursing homes, skilled nursing facilities, and assisted living facilities. For more than 150 years, hand hygiene has been recognized as a foundational measure all healthcare personnel should use to prevent infections. Hand hygiene includes cleaning hands with alcohol-based hand sanitizer (ABHS) or handwashing with soap and water.
Sanitizing hands with ABHS containing 60 to 95 percent alcohol is the preferred way for healthcare personnel to clean their hands in most situations. ABHS is convenient and easy to use as healthcare personnel move between patients and tasks. Healthcare personnel should clean their hands immediately before and after touching a patient or things near a patient, as well as before and after tasks like starting an IV, even if they are wearing gloves. ABHS does not kill certain germs, like C. difficile, but sanitizing hands is still the overall recommended method for hand hygiene in healthcare.
In a few situations — like before eating, after using the restroom, or helping a patient with toileting — healthcare personnel should wash their hands with soap and water. Hands should be scrubbed with soap for a minimum of 15 to 20 seconds.
Gloves — and sometimes other personal protective equipment, such as gowns — should be worn by healthcare personnel whenever they may have to touch blood or body fluids, or care for patients that might have infections that may be spread by contact, like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Gloves protect the hands from contamination, but do not replace the need to clean the hands before putting gloves on and after removing them. In addition, healthcare personnel should remove their gloves and immediately clean their hands whenever they move from one patient to the next and any time their gloves become visibly dirty during care.
Next time you are in a healthcare facility pay attention to where hand hygiene supplies are located. Are all the needed supplies readily available for everyone to use? Dispensers of ABHS should be conveniently located where healthcare personnel can use them as they walk by. This is often in the hallway near the entrance to a patient room and inside the room so that hands can be cleaned during care when needed.
Hand hygiene is a critical part of keeping patients and healthcare personnel safe. Patients and their loved ones should feel empowered to remind healthcare providers to clean their hands. Protect yourself and others by cleaning your hands often.