Step 4 Help Prevent Infections: Ask Caregivers to Wash Their Hands

Getting Sick While Getting Better

Hundreds of thousands of people get sick (and sometimes die) every year from infections they pick up while they are in the hospital or clinic being treated for something else. says that on average you’ll have about a 4% chance of getting an infection while in a medical treatment facility.

There’s even a name for this: “HAI” — Healthcare-Associated (or Hospital-Acquired) Infections.

What can be done?

One of the most basic yet most effective ways to prevent infections is for everyone — doctors, therapists, nurses, friends and family — to wash their hands before touching you. But medical staff are busy and under pressure: sometimes they forget.

If you see a healthcare provider reaching for you without having washed, ask them to do so — politely but firmly. This isn’t easy: no one wants to offend. But there are ways to do it.

Gloves? Hand Sanitizer?

When asked to wash, some medical staff may say “I’m wearing surgical gloves” or “We use hand sanitizer, it’s better.” But neither is good enough. Sanitizer does not get rid of C-Diff spores, for example. And gloves are not sterile, especially if put on unwashed hands.

Communicating About Hand Washing

At Pulse Center for Patient Safety Education & Advocacy, community members learning to be advocates or to support a patient are taught that hand washing is often about more than just clean hands. When a clinician washes before touching a vulnerable patient, it shows respect for the patient. The patient can better trust the person who is washing. It says that they care enough to protect the patient from germs and possible infection.

As a patient or family member, if you see someone wash, be sure to thank them.

Asking someone to wash their hands can be embarrassing and cause discomfort. Recognize this up front. Also, they probably wash their hands all day and just because you didn’t see them do it doesn’t mean it hasn’t been done. So, acknowledge that.

You might say, “I’m sure you wash all day but I would feel more comfortable if I saw you wash your hands before you touch me.”

This way you have acknowledged that you know they wash, and maybe just forgot, but you still want them to.

Let's Talk About Step # 4 with Edward Pollak, MD, Medical Director and Patient Safety Officer, The Joint Commission

Infection Prevention by the Numbers