A Gentler Option to Barking: “Did You Wash Your Hands?”

Hospitalized patients are right to be terrified of getting a serious infection from the hands of their doctors or nurses. But is there any option to barking at everyone who comes in your room: “Did you wash your hands?”?

Yes, says gastroenterologist Steven Kussin, author of the forthcoming book “Doctor, Your Patient Will See You Now.”

Here’s the problem Dr. Kussin identifies if you ask the “did you wash your hands” question:

Doctors or staff members who respond “no” are guilty of a grave medical lapse. If they didn’t wash and then lie to you, they’re also guilty of a grave ethical lapse. Either way, the question raises their defenses and their hackles. Instead, if you didn’t witness a hand-washing ritual, then assume it didn’t happen. You’ll probably be right. Physician hand-washing compliance runs about 33 percent.

And his answer, in a letter to the editor in the New York Times:

If you show them, they will wash. When they, or anyone, approach your bedside, give them notice of your intent. Hold out a bottle of sanitizer with a big smile. As you squirt them say: “I know how busy you are, and I am sure you’ve already done this a million times a day. But I’m terrified of those infections I’ve been reading about. I hope you’re O.K. with this.”

That’s it. Easy, pleasant and effective.

Good advice. I have more about avoiding infections in the hospital, and other avoidable medical harms, in my patient safety newsletter, which you can read here.

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