Hand wringing about hand washing

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Gary Tetz
Gary Tetz

Now that we know many nursing homes don't meet hand-washing guidelines, let the hand-wringing begin. Hopefully with a generous squirt of anti-microbial sanitizer in the palm first.

It's a genuinely frightening problem. Humankind is constantly under attack by two evil forces: Girl Scouts selling lethally unhealthy cookies and vicious microbes out to kill us. We're always one door handle away from a battle to the death against invisible, flesh-eating monsters, and woe is we if that door handle happens to be attached to a hospital or long-term care facility.

To be fair, this isn't only a problem for our profession. Michigan State University researchers recently spent a disturbing amount of time hiding in public restrooms, and report that 95% of the people they observed washed their hands incorrectly. They made little mistakes like not scrubbing long enough, not using soap and not stopping at the sink. Personally, if I were being stared at by a university researcher in a public restroom, I'd skimp on the hand-washing step too. So I'm not sure I trust the study's conclusions. 

So why is it so hard to get our employees, and ourselves, to do this critical task properly? It's not for lack of signage over sinks with drawings of hands and cute little soapy bubbles. It's not for lack of Purell1 dispensers, which adorn every flat surface and hang on every wall of every nursing home I've ever visited.

I have a theory, bordering on a suspicion, that inadequate hand washing is pervasive because we've been conditioned not to touch anything. We imagine microscopic threats on every surface, even on objects created to help us fight such threats, i.e. the sink, the towel dispenser, the garden hose, the steam valve in the facility basement. We don't wash because we're afraid of being contaminated by these very instruments of our survival. It's a vicious, dirty, ironic circle. 

Short of eliminating surfaces entirely, which seems costly and impractical, or requiring employees, residents, family and friends, vendors and members of the clergy to blast each other several times a day with sanitizing foam dispensed from old fire extinguishers, I'm not sure what the solution is.

So let's just do like any good politician would — admit it's hopeless and throw up our hands. Making sure not to touch anything.


1 By the way, if you buy the online subscription required to read this excellent New Yorker article about the rise of the Purell empire, you can avoid touching those filthy magazine pages in your doctor's waiting room. But you will have to touch your computer keyboard. So please weigh the risks carefully.


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Things I Think

Things I Think is written by longtime industry columnist Gary Tetz, who resides in Portland, OR. Since his debut with SNALF.com at the end of a previous century, he has continued to amuse, inform and sometimes befuddle long-term care readers worldwide.