There's an old Far Side cartoon where a bunch of scalpel-wielding doctors are gathered around a patient lying prostrate on the operating table. The chief surgeon consults the patient's chart and pauses.
"Wait, this one's a lawyer," he says. "We'd better wash our hands."
Somehow the truth is a lot less funny. According to a new study headed by Dr. Bruce Farber of North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, New York, handwashing rates among healthcare professionals leave much to be desired. Between 2008 and 2010, Farber and his colleagues installed $50,000 in cameras aimed at sinks and hand sanitizers to see if doctors and nurses washed their hands within 10 seconds of entering a patient's room, and if they did the same thing on the way out.
The results? Less than seven percent of workers washed their hands within the allotted 10 seconds upon entering or before leaving a patient's room. Once they realized that their hygienic habits were being monitored, compliance rates shot up to 88 percent.
"Handwashing is an integral part of infection control," said Farber. "[But] rates of handwashing among healthcare workers are less than perfect."
For all the emphasis on handwashing these days, it's still a relatively recent phenomenon. In 1847 a Hungarian-born physician named Ignaz Semmelweis noticed that women who were assisted by medical students while giving birth contracted fatal childbed fever more frequently than those assisted by midwives. Curious, he investigated and conjectured that the infections were due to bacteria medical students were exposed to while performing autopsies. After instituting a strict policy of handwashing, mortality rates dropped by twentyfold within three months.
A century and a half later, handwashing is de rigeur in hospitals, restaurants, and pretty much everywhere else you'll find a sink. But as skilled as doctors may be, they are still susceptible to human error. If installing expensive surveillance equipment means the difference between a clean surgery and a deadly infection, let's get the cameras rolling.