Guest column: Is simple hygiene too much to ask?

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 1, 2002

Early one evening about three years ago I had the rare fortune of meeting up with Sen. Robert Byrd as he was leaving the enviable convenience of his private office near the floor of the Senate and was making his way to his staff office in the Hart Building. To steady himself, the 80 year-old senator locked his left arm tightly around my right then, without having to ask, had me escort him down a narrow spiral staircase and through a maze of corridors leading to the senate subway.

As his right hand slid along the coiling wooden handrail during the slow, purposeful decent of the stairway the senator expressed a bit of unease over the number of germs present on such surfaces.

For the rest of our walk, rather than taking advantage of Byrd’s enormous knowledge of ancient history or tapping into his reservoir of wisdom and unparalleled expertise about the U.S. Senate, we discussed how seldom people wash their hands after using the bathroom.

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Some people might dismiss Byrd’s remarks as the grumblings of an old fuddy-duddy; however, in light of a report issued by the Centers for Disease Control attributing more than 90,000 hospital deaths each year to in-house bacteriological contamination, Byrd seems absolutely sagacious. In a study published last week by the Chicago Tribune, it was shown that a great portion of these deaths could be attributed to the simple failure of medical personnel to wash their hands.

That unclean hands can transmit germs was figured out more than 150 years ago by a Hungarian physician who discovered that the infections that were killing women who had just given birth in a hospital were being spread by the bacteria-laden hands of his colleagues.

In another recent study, this one conducted at the Duke University Medical Center, it was found that only 17 percent of physicians treating patients in an intensive care unit washed their hands appropriately.

After my two-year stint as a Washington medical reporter, covering everything from high-powered American Hospital Association and American Medical Association conferences, to symposiums for nursing home attendants, I am not the least bit surprised at these findings. On virtually every visit that I would make to the lavatory over the course of these three day conferences I would see leading medical professionals &045; doctors, top level administrators, men possessing the highest educational and professional achievements, waltz out of the restroom stalls and proceed directly out the door.

I was curious enough to ask my female counterparts whether or not the women participants behaved any better. The answer was an unequivocal no.

The average physician has twenty years more education than a kindergartener &045; the age at which most people were taught the importance of basic bathroom hygiene.

How can we muster the intellectual capacity to engage in a rational discussion over the health care crisis in this nation, when our medical professionals can’t even wash their hands properly? When you consider that in the neighborhood of $5 billion is being spent yearly to treat hospital infections that are also brought on, in great part, through the over-prescription of antibiotics, is it any wonder that we give serious consideration to lame prescriptions such as the Bush $1,000 tax break for fixing our health care system?

Washing your hands in a medical environment is as fundamental as touching the bases in baseball. The consequences of ignoring elementary hospital hygiene practices are as straightforward as those associated with the intentional burning of rain forest, or as uncomplicated to figure out as permitting corporate accounting firms to offer consulting services in addition to their regular bookkeeping activities.

Complain about inadequate hand washing and one will most likely be derided as being like Howard Hughes. Call attention to disastrous environmental practices and be dismissed as a &uot;tree hugger.&uot; The Enrons and Arthur Andersons of the world will be written off as &uot;a few bad apples.&uot;

What is it about these common sense-concepts that otherwise intelligent people aren’t able to comprehend? There is a certain intellectual laziness inherent in all of them.

It’s a practice, the likes of which, I wish we would wash our hands.

Albert Lea native John Rosenberg is a political and foreign affairs writer based in Alexandria, Va.