Your mom was right: You should wash your hands

Freakonomics Blog: More Evidence That Hand Washing Really Works

A few months back, we wrote about one hospital’s very creative effort to get its medical staff to do a better job of washing their hands. Because so many people die in hospitals each year from bacterial infections they acquire while being treated for something else, the Institute of Medicine had sounded a loud alarm, urging all hospitals to do something about the problem.

One of the easiest ways to get a potentially fatal infection is if you have a central-line catheter put in; as many as 28,000 patients die each year from infections caused by the insertion of a central-line catheter.

The current New England Journal of Medicine reports on a study conducted in Michigan hospitals to see if increased vigilance on hand hygiene would cut down on the incidence of catheter infections.

And it worked, big-time. “The results are pretty breathtaking,” Dr. Peter Pronovost, a Johns Hopkins researcher and the lead author of the study told the Baltimore Sun. “The numbers of infections went down quickly and they stayed down.”

Earlier at Susan Kitchen’s 2020 Hindsight: Hand sanitizing

A few weeks ago, I saw this NYTimes article: staff at Cedars-Sinai hospital successfully modified behavior for the greater good. Culture doctors’ hands. Wait. Photograph the bacteria. Convert to screensavers hospital-wide. Watch the rate of hand-washing go way, way up. Above 90% Happy-Hospital-Certification to damn near 100%. Hooray.

A few days ago I recalled the story. I was at the local hospital visting an elderly patient (the one listening to music on my iPod+speaker-dock). Doctor comes into room. We’ve not met, so we introduce. Shake hands. Discuss treatment, diagnosis. Stethoscope comes out for a listen (the patient has pneumonia). A little more chit-chat, then the doctor leaves. As he reaches the doorway, his hand hits the dispenser pump next to the door, and then he’s gone. The pump holds hand sanitizer. He’s A Good Doctor. I note his actions and describe the gist of the NYTimes article about the screensaver to my companion.

Today I thought of this story when I read about hand-sanitizing on the campaign trail. Yep. Also for trade shows. And after swing dance classes where partner trading is the norm: “Wait, I’m not ready to leave yet. I have to wash my hands.” Then, too, there’s washing your hands in a public restroom, immediately followed by touching the door handle that everyone else touches in order to leave the restroom.

Is there a correlation between increased fastidiousness in middlin’ years and decreased tolerance (both constitutional and attitudinal) of icky-poo colds n flus?

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