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Clean hands fight deadly germs

Sometimes it is the littlest things that have the biggest impact.

Belinda Hawkins heads the Hand Hygiene Program at Whidbey General Hospital and this registered nurse knows incontrovertibly that simple hand hygiene is the basis of effective infection control, be it MRSA or some other type of germ. 

Anywhere one looks in the hospital, the ubiquitous hand cleaners are present. Having at least two hand hygiene products in every patient room has made it easier for staff to wash their hands, the importance of which cannot be overstated.

“One of the biggest landmarks in the development of public health policies was hand washing,” said Dr. Gabe Barrio, Whidbey General’s chief of medicine.

Hawkins added that hand washing has been monitored in hospitals for the last 30 years. Whidbey General has always made it a policy, but efforts to make hospitals even safer has pushed it to the top of the priority list.

“It’s very simple, but it’s the most basic thing we can do to prevent the transmission of infections,” she said.

The hand washing program entails much more than mere reminders. It has become second nature for staff.

“What we’re trying to achieve is that every patient is touched by clean hands,” Hawkins said. “Every time we go into a patient’s room, we wash our hands before we touch the patient. And when we leave the patient’s room, we clean our hands again, either with soap and water or an alcohol gel or foam.”

Whidbey General has always boasted lower site-specific infection rates than the national averages for hospital-acquired infections. But because one infection is too many, in June of last year, the hospital augmented its patient safety initiatives by adding the Hand Hygiene Program. The program is deceptively simple and overwhelmingly effective.

“One, we encourage patients and their families to ask their doctors and nurses if they have washed their hands,” she said. “And two, we count the number of empty bottles of hand cleaner and compare that with the number of patients. We have seen more hand cleaning since beginning the program.”

The staff actively promotes a level of patient accountability, stressing that hand hygiene should not stop when the hospital stay ends. Nurses and doctors actively engage patients in discourse about the correlation between good hygiene at home and an accelerated recovery.

“Really the door swings between the community and hospital when it comes to infection,” said Arlene Johnson, the hospital’s director of quality improvement.

The Washington State Hospital Association has provided support for proactive facilities like Whidbey General in the form of comparable data calculation.

“They’re helping hospitals understand how to implement this Hand Hygiene Program and they’re compiling the data for us and giving it back so we can see how we’re doing in comparison to our baseline, and how we compare to other hospitals in the state,” Hawkins said.

The program has successfully spread ­­— in a good way — to every level of hospital service. By making hand washing a habit, muscle memory begins to make the action involuntary.

“We’re trying to build habits,” Hawkins said. “The hand products are everywhere. We want to make hand cleaning effortless and automatic.”

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