A Shared Responsibility: The Importance of Hand Hygiene for Patients and Visitors

While hospitals and medical facilities are often perceived as being ultra-clean, an individual's chance of developing a healthcare-associated infection (HAI) while being treated in a medical facility is about 1 in 31. Due to the dense concentration of patients, some of whom may carry infectious or drug-resistant diseases, medical facilities can be breeding grounds for pathogens, especially when coupled with high patient turnover and frequent invasive procedures. 

This risk of developing a HAI increases depending on factors such as the status of the patient’s immune system, their age, and the length of time spent in the hospital. Additionally, recent data from The Leapfrog Group has shown alarming spikes in HAIs, with the average risk of central line-associated bloodstream infections (CLABSIs) increasing by 60% and hospital-acquired methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infections rising by 37%.

Handwashing Prevents Hospital-Acquired Infections

One of the most effective strategies against HAIs is handwashing, which has been shown to prevent up to 50% of avoidable infections. This impressive statistic is more than just a number; it translates directly into lives saved and explains why there has been such a push for healthcare workers to wash their hands frequently. It has even spurred companies like SwipeSense to develop technology that tracks hand hygiene compliance, offering innovative solutions to ensure that handwashing protocols are followed.

Handwashing has traditionally focused on healthcare workers, but the hygiene practices of patients and visitors are an often overlooked aspect of infection control. Considering a healthcare worker might have physical contact with a patient 10-20 times a day, the average person touches their face, eyes, mouth, and nose up to 50 times an hour. This frequent touching significantly heightens the potential for transferring pathogens to oneself or others.

Visitors also play a critical role in the spread of infections within hospitals, often greeting their loved ones with close physical contact, hugs, or kisses. This issue is compounded by a significant gap in awareness and education about the importance of hand hygiene. In one study, 96% of visitors to a hospital reported not receiving any training, guidance, or reminders about washing their hands. When the same visitors were observed, only 22% of visitors washed their hands before touching the patient. 

Challenges Faced by Patients and Visitors to Maintain Hand Hygiene

Often, the issue isn't that patients and visitors don't care about hand hygiene; it's just that they lack awareness of how important it is. Patients, in particular, face real barriers that can hinder their ability to maintain cleanliness. Some of these barriers include limited mobility, the risk of falls, and the inconvenience posed by various medical devices and tubes. In many facilities, hand sanitizer machines are located outside the rooms, limiting the patient’s access to them. Another challenge is that most patients have electronic pulse oximeters on their fingers, which can’t get wet and are infrequently changed or cleaned.

Promoting Effective Hand Hygiene Practices for Patients and Visitors

To decrease the incidence of HAIs transmitted by patients and visitors, individuals should follow basic handwashing guidelines, including: 

  • Refrain from visiting when sick.
  • Wash hands thoroughly before eating and after using the bathroom.
  • Ensure visitors wash their hands before and after touching patients.
  • Encourage patients to wash their hands after healthcare workers touch them.
  • Avoid touching dressings, wounds, or IV lines.

For patients with limited mobility, a portable dispenser of hand sanitizer can be placed on their bedside table for easier access. It’s also important (and encouraged) to monitor the handwashing of anyone who enters the room. If unsure whether hand hygiene was performed, it’s okay to ask or kindly request that they wash their hands.

The importance of hand hygiene for patients and visitors cannot be overstated, and it’s a team effort to ensure everyone stays healthy and free from infection. By adhering to basic handwashing guidelines and making it easy and accessible to perform hand hygiene, individuals can significantly reduce the transmission of HAIs. Plus, with companies like SwipeSense, there are now tools available to enhance hand hygiene compliance and set a good example for patients and visitors alike.