Is Hand Washing Vital in Infection Control?

Yes. As simple as it sounds, proper hand washing is a crucial step in infection control, both within the hospital setting and at home. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says, “Regular handwashing, particularly before and after certain activities, is one of the best ways to remove germs, avoid getting sick, and prevent the spread of germs to others. It’s quick, it’s simple, and it can keep us all from getting sick. Handwashing is a win for everyone, except the germs.” That’s a powerful statement!

I am very proud of the efforts of the NMC staff to keep infections acquired at the hospital at remarkably low levels. NMC’s rate of surgical site infections is a fraction of the national average. While the national benchmark is at about 1.9%, NMC’s rate is consistently well under 1% and often less than one half of one percent! That’s exceptional care in action! It takes our full team and a comprehensive approach: everything from our surgeons’ technique and our staffs’ efforts to our air handling systems to how we clean our rooms to how we handle supplies, and beyond. Yes, even how we wash our hands. We require our staff to do proper hand wash as an important part of our approach to infection control. The results speak for themselves.

You can take a similar approach at home and help keep yourself and your loved ones healthy. While you have no doubt washed your hands all your life, it is still important to take a moment and make sure you are using the right technique. This is a clear case where “the way I’ve always done it” might not be “best practice” and the difference between the two might be the difference between staying healthy and getting sick. Proper hand washing can prevent the spread of germs. Improper hand washing can let germs slip by and lead to the spread of illness.

Fortunately, the “right way” is not complicated and there are good resources to help you improve what you are doing. The “Stop Germs from Spreading” page on the Vermont Department of Health’s website has wonderful resources regarding hand washing. One of their posters maps out the five steps to proper hand washing: 1) use warm water; 2) moisten hands and apply soap; 3) rub hands together for 20 seconds; 4) rinse thoroughly; and 5) dry hands. Being attentive while you are doing this routine task is key. There is a temptation to take something this simple and familiar for granted, but doing so risks ineffectiveness. When you rub your hands together during washing, make sure you are getting between your fingers, under your nails, and under your rings. While hand sanitizers can be effective, the CDC says “soap and water is the best way” to reduce the number of germs on your hands in most situations. Need help determining how long 20 seconds is? The CDC offers the suggestion of humming the “Happy Birthday” song to yourself twice from beginning to end while washing your hands. It helps ensure you pause and wash long enough to be effective and it is nearly guaranteed to make you smile!

The CDC also lists a number of important instances which prompt the need for hand washing: “Before, during, and after preparing food; before eating food; before and after caring for someone who is sick; before and after treating a cut or wound; after using the toilet, changing diapers, or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet; after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing; after touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste; and after touching garbage.” Those are common things in everyday life which expose us to literally millions of germs, so proper and timely hand washing is important throughout the day!

Hand washing is a simple way each of us can preserve our own good health and prevent the spread of illness to others. It is a familiar step which we should not take for granted. To learn more, check out the CDC’s website as well as that of the Vermont Department of Health. Please join me in paying more attention to proper hand washing – and smiling while we hum “Happy Birthday” (twice) at the sink!

— Jill Berry Bowen, NMC’s Chief Executive Officer