Why Handwashing Is Essential in Healthcare

This precautionary step to reduce germs is critical during this dangerous flu season

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), on any given day, one out of about every 25 patients in a hospital has at least one infection they got as a result of receiving healthcare. One of the factors is that those who work in healthcare tend to wash their hands less than half as often as they should. But healthcare workers should always make it a priority to keep their patients safe from germs, and handwashing is essential.

During a flu season with the severity of the one we are having now, handwashing is not just important—it can be lifesaving, especially if you work in one of the allied health professions. Washing your hands often is one of six steps the CDC recommends for preventing yourself from getting the flu.

The key is “hand hygiene,” which helps to ensure that you aren’t either spreading an infection to someone else or picking one up. We have some handwashing suggestions to keep in mind in the workplace during this dangerous flu season:

The most important times to wash

Healthcare professionals should wash their hands before interacting with every patient. If you wash your hands in front of the patient, they will feel confident that you are taking extra precautions to keep them safe. Also be sure to wash your hands after each time you:

  • take off latex (or other) gloves
  • make contact with a patient’s skin—anywhere on their body
  • dress a wound
  • handle a specimen such as blood or urine

Not all washes are the same

Be sure you are doing a good and thorough job of handwashing at work. Follow these guidelines:

  • Take your time. Spend at least 15 or 20 seconds, which might be longer than you think. This is enough time to recite the song “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” twice. That’s how long you should be standing at the sink with your hands in hot soapy water. You want to make sure to have a good lather going, so spend the time you need to do a thorough job.
  • Get all the surfaces. Key to an effective handwashing is getting in between your fingers, as well as under all of your fingernails. You want to wash halfway up your arm, towards your elbow. Try to envision all the surfaces of your hand that are vulnerable to germs, and cover every one.
  • Hot water is your friend. Cold water is not as effective when you are trying to kill germs, so use water that is nice and hot—or at least warm.
  • Dry your hands thoroughly. The final step of a good handwashing is making sure your hands are completely dry. You don’t want to leave any moisture on them, since that makes it easier for bacteria or microorganisms to survive. Paper towels are more sanitary than hand dryers, but either way, spend time to make sure there is no remaining wetness when you walk away from the sink.

Another tip: Keep your nails short, trimmed to ¼ inch; longer nails can trap bacteria on your hands. And avoid fake nails altogether (which can be inconvenient when working with patients anyway).

What the science says

The CDC’s guidelines for Hand Hygiene in Healthcare Settings offer plenty of interesting science behind the advice. For instance:

  • Depending on how many patients they see and the kind of care they offer, over the course of a 12-hour shift, healthcare providers might need to clean their hands as often an 100 times—that’s more than 8 times an hour, or at least twice every 15 minutes!
  • Don’t think of wearing gloves as an alternative to hand washing. This will not protect you or your patients. Clean your hands as soon as you remove a pair of gloves.
  • Your hands have good germs—that keep you healthy and support your immune system—and bad germs—that cause you to get sick. The good germs are under the deeper layers of your skin, whereas the bad germs live on the surface. When you wash your hands or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, you are killing both good and bad germs, but the good germs are quickly able to come back.
  • Hand sanitizer has some advantages over soap and hot water. It is easy to use, takes less time, and it is highly effective at reducing bacteria on your hands and at killing germs that have the potential to be deadly. Another advantage is that your hands will be less dry after repeated uses, whereas continuous washing can take its toll on your skin. However, hand sanitizer will not kill certain infections, such as Clostridium difficile, which causes severe diarrhea. Wear gloves when examining any patient who has this kind of infection, and be sure to wash your hands with soap and water.
  • The alcohol content is what makes hand sanitizers antimicrobial, and to be effective they need to be at least 60 to 90 percent alcohol. It is a myth that germs are able to adapt and become resistant to this kind of sanitizer, which is different from antibiotics.

Keeping away the flu is critical this season—but should always be a top priority. Talk with your fellow healthcare providers about keeping each other accountable and putting first the safety measure of frequent and consistent handwashing. Being conscientious will protect you as well as the patients for whom you are caring. So step up that hand hygiene!

This post is part of the weekly blog of Seacoast Career Schools. If you’re interested in a professional training program, we offer Medical Assisting, Dental Assisting, Massage Therapy, and Medical Billing and CodingReach out to us today, either online or by calling 800-758-7679, to learn more or to schedule a tour of one of our campuses in Manchester, NH, or Sanford, ME.

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