Q&A on Handwashing


Wash Your Hands

Handwashing gets emphasized during cold and flu season, and during epidemics, like COVID-19. It’s really a year-round priority though. Here is what you need to know about washing your hands, including what you should expect from Mary Greeley staff.

Why is proper handwashing so important?

Many different germs (bacteria and viruses) can survive on surfaces for long periods of time. Touching a spot that has been contaminated by germs, whether at home, work, or public places, puts you at risk of infection if you later touch your mouth, nose, or eyes. Cleaning your hands eliminates the germs before they can make you sick, and avoids spreading germs to those around you.

Is there a proper to wash your hands?

Yes, technique is very important. Whether using soap and water or hand sanitizer, you want to be sure all surfaces of the hands are covered. That includes fingertips, between the fingers, back of hands and fingers, palm of hands, and thumbs. Studies show the most frequently missed areas are the back of hands, thumbs, and finger tips. Typically it takes about 20 seconds to complete a thorough handwashing. Singing the “Happy Birthday” song twice while washing your hands is a good method. Also, and this is very important, always remember, you shouldn’t lather up while simultaneously rinsing under the water. This is ineffective.

If using hand sanitizer, you want to be sure you have enough gel/foam to cover all surfaces of your hands, and rub your hands together until they are completely dry. This should also take about 20 seconds if you are using the right amount.

Hand Hygiene 101

Need a lesson on the best way to wash your Hands? Check out this brief video:

How often and when should you wash your hands?  

There is no magic number of times per hour. How often and when depends upon your activities. Because there are so many times when it is appropriate to clean your hands, most people do not do it often enough. Key moments include before and during food preparation, before eating, before and after caring for someone who is sick, after using the bathroom or changing diapers, after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing, after petting animals, and anytime your hands are visibly soiled.

In addition to these opportunities, we train hospital staff to use the World Health Organization’s (WHO) 5 Moments for Hand Hygiene. These include: before touching a patient, before completing a clean/antiseptic procedure, after a procedure or body fluid exposure risk, after touching a patient, and after touching patient surroundings.

What are handwashing opportunities most people miss?

Because of the “ewww-yuck” factor, we typically do a very good job at cleaning our hands when they are visibly soiled. Most people miss cleaning their hands when they already look or feel clean. A good rule of thumb is to clean your hands when you first get home from a public outing or work, as well as always before you eat. In addition, a good practice is to carry hand sanitizer with you for those times when it isn’t convenient to find a bathroom.

How is Mary Greeley educating staff about handwashing? How do we monitor handwashing and what is our compliance rate?

Clean hands are the most important method of preventing infections so we take hand hygiene very seriously at Mary Greeley. Staff receive annual education on why, how, and when to complete hand hygiene. Because we are a Joint Commission accredited hospital, we are required to monitor and report hand hygiene compliance rates. We monitor all 5 WHO Moments for Hand Hygiene through trained, discrete observers. We are currently at 85 percent compliance. While our goal is 100 percent compliance, we are still well above the national average of approximately 50 percent compliance.

What should patients watch for with hospital staff in terms of handwashing?

Hand hygiene is an important aspect of patient safety. Patients should expect everyone who enters their room to clean their hands. Before any hospital staff touches them, a patient or family member should also witness staff completing hand hygiene. Staff should use the hand sanitizer dispenser when they enter and when they leave. We call it “foaming in” and “foaming out.” If you’re not sure, please don’t hesitate to say: ‘I’m sorry, but I didn’t see you clean your hands. Would you mind doing it again?’

What role do families and other visitors have when it comes to handwashing at the hospital?

In addition to cleaning their hands when entering and leaving the room, friends and family can act as advocates for their loved one. Feel free to assist your loved one with cleaning their hands before a meal, request a small bottle of hand sanitizer or a package of hand wipes for use at the bedside. Please ask questions, and if you notice hospital staff forgetting to clean their hands, don’t hesitate to remind us.

Are products like Purell effective? More effective than soap and water?

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers, like Purell, are very effective in the right situation. You must always use sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Hand sanitizers are excellent at reducing bacterial counts on hands and are effective against multidrug-resistant organisms, such as MRSA. In addition, because of the added emollients, hand sanitizers can cause less irritation than frequent use of soap and water.

There are times, however, when soap and water is better. Soap and water is preferred if your hands are visibly soiled or greasy, prior to working with food or preparing meals, and after using the bathroom. In addition, because hand sanitizer is not effective against Clostridium difficile, (C. diff) which is a diarrheal infection common in hospitals, we recommend washing with soap and water when caring for patients with C. diff or diarrhea.

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