Hey doc, please wash your hands

Happy Global Hand Hygiene Day!

Today, Wednesday May 5, 2010 is the second day designated to remind healthcare workers across the world, and the rest of us, that washing hands saves lives.

As the parent of a three-year-old I am acutely aware of the need for hand washing. I counted and on Saturday I asked my daughter to wash her hands 269 times, more if you include the times when I had to ask her five times before she responded.

Since the Swine Flu outbreak in the spring of 2009, I’ve actually become a bit obsessive compulsive about hand cleaning. I now have three separate hand sanitizers on my desk – I found during an assignment at a hospital a few years back that if I use one too much my arms break out in hives.

The global hand washing day, however, is more about protecting patients from preventable healthcare-acquired infections. It is sponsored by the World Health Organization and had 8,173 signed up to participate in the effort as of Tuesday. UPDATE: They reached their goal of 10,000 registrations with 11,543 as of 11 a.m. Wednesday of which 2,112 were in the U.S.

The need is great, particularly in hospitals, according to research in the American Journal of Medical Quality by  Maryanne McGuckin, president of a local company that helps hospitals improve hand hygiene compliance rates and a senior scholar in the department of health policy at Jefferson Medical College. McGuckin and several colleagues studies compliance with hand cleaning and several hospitals and reported that “after 12 months of measuring product usage and providing feedback, compliance increased to 37% for ICUs and 51% for non-ICUs.”

That was up from 26 percent compliance in ICUs and 36 percent elsewhere in hospital. Still, there is clearly some work to do if 63 percent of workers in hospital intensive care units where the sickest and most vulnerable patients are treated aren’t washing up properly.

The impact of hospital-acquired infections is great. A state agency report on heart surgery in New Jersey issued Tuesday found that patients who got infections in the hospital after undergoing bypasses in 2007 had a death rate of 11.5 percent and average length of hospitals stay of 18.2 days compared with 1.2 percent and 6.7 days for those who didn’t contract infections.