Nova Scotia·Health Hacks

Do health-care workers wash their hands enough?

One out of every 10 patients will develop an infection while in hospital. Health-care consultant Mary Jane Hampton says the single most effective way to prevent the spread of infection in hospitals is handwashing.

The good news is the rate is pretty high in Nova Scotia. The bad news ... it's not 100%

Handwashing and health care

3 years ago
Duration 0:33
Halifax health-care consultant Mary Jane Hamilton lists the times when a health-care provider should be washing their hands.

This is part of a series from CBC's Information Morning where Halifax health-care consultant Mary Jane Hampton discusses her "health hacks" — ways to make your experience with the health-care system better.

When it comes to the spread of bugs and bacteria inside hospitals, the statistics can be alarming.

One out of every 10 patients will develop an infection while in hospital, according to health-care consultant Mary Jane Hampton. 

While most patients recover completely, infections can also be very serious, Hampton said, causing about 12,000 deaths in Canada each year. 

There are several reasons why infections spread in hospital, Hampton told CBC Nova Scotia's Information Morning.

Sometimes, it's because equipment wasn't properly sterilized. But most of the time, it's because someone didn't wash their hands and passed on a bug.

"Not washing hands is one of the easiest ways to pass an infection on between patients or between provider and patient," Hampton said.

Mary Jane Hampton says health-care providers are more likely to wash their hands after they provide care than before they provide care. (Robert Short/CBC)

Several years ago, high rates of hospital infections prompted studies that found health-care providers were only washing their hands about 40 per cent of the time between patients — something Hampton describes as "kind of gross and shocking."

With the institution of hand-washing campaigns, that rate has gone up to over 80 per cent in Nova Scotia. 

"Something so simple can have such a huge effect on the safety of patients in your care," Hampton said. "Really, the target we should be aiming for is 100 per cent."

Hampton said there's a lot controversy around what patients and families should do if they notice a health-care worker hasn't washed their hands. 

"There are some people who say the patient needs to be a key partner in their care. If you see that a provider in front of you that's about to touch you hasn't washed their hands, the patient should just step up and say, 'Hey, wash your hands,'" she said.

"Personally, I don't think it's as simple as that. For most people, this would be a very uncomfortable conversation to have with their care provider."

On the issue of handwashing by practitioners, Hampton offers the following health hacks:

  • If you want to raise the issue, do it in a polite and supportive way. Words like, "I know you're busy, but would you mind washing your hands again just to be sure I'm safe."
  • If you aren't comfortable raising the issue directly with that health-care worker, you can report your concern to their supervisor. 
  • Make sure that you and all your visitors wash hands regularly — germs come into the hospital with every person you see.
  • Take the initiative to clean the area around a hospitalized patient by wiping down the bed rails, IV pole or bedside table with disinfectant. It may help decrease the risk of infection.
  • If you are sick with an infection, you should not visit someone who is sick, no matter where they are receiving their care, such as in a hospital, in their home, etc.

Nova Scotia's Department of Health and Wellness keeps a public record of hand-washing rates in Nova Scotia's hospitals


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