Handwashing Prevents Dangerous Illnesses

Photo By Bernard Little | "Being sure our hands are clean is the strongest weapon we have in our toolbox to prevent illness,” said Michelle Wagner, a registered nurse and nurse consultant with Infection Prevention and Control in the Quality Directorate at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.



Story by Bernard Little 

Walter Reed National Military Medical Center

While National Handwashing Awareness Week is observed Dec. 1-7 this year, staff members at Walter Reed Bethesda make handwashing a focus 24-7 at the largest joint U.S. military medical center.
“Being sure our hands are clean is the strongest weapon we have in our toolbox to prevent illness,” said Michelle Wagner, a registered nurse and nurse consultant with Infection Prevention and Control in the Quality Directorate at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. National Handwashing Week highlights this along with learning the basics about hand hygiene.
“WRB uses hand hygiene (HH) champions to observe and educate for correct hand-hygiene technique when performed by inpatient and outpatient staff. As new staff are on boarded, the hand hygiene competency tool is used to ensure all correct HH steps are followed,” Wagner explained.
“Each patient care area gets a raw score of their monthly hand-hygiene completions. Walter Reed is a participant in the national patient safety organization called LEAP FROG (LF). This is a national reporting organization that grades hospitals with a letter grade for patient safety. One of the categories measured and surveyed by LF is hand hygiene. Our facility has been working towards meeting the LF requirements so we can achieve an ‘A’ status. We have increased our hand-hygiene observers and the number of observations they audit. We have added a tool to allow patients to report observations of staff hand hygiene and have an ongoing A3 project to look for any gaps in hand-hygiene observation collection and performance,” Wagner added.
Wagner cautions that germs can spread from other people or surfaces when:
• someone touches his or her eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands
• foods and drinks are prepared and consumed with unwashed hands
• someone touches a contaminated surface or objects
• someone blows their nose, coughs, or sneezes into their hands and then touches other people’s hands or common objects
“Keeping hands clean is the most important step we take to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others, especially during the COVID pandemic and flu season,” Wagner furthered. “Handwashing prevents spreading infection during patient care, and can prevent a health-care worker from bringing infectious organisms into their own homes and infecting their loved ones.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), handwashing can prevent 1 in 3 diarrhea-related illnesses, and 1 in 5 infections, including the flu. In addition, the CDC reports approximately 1.4 million children under age 5 die annually from diarrheal disease and pneumonia—the two most deadly afflictions for children worldwide.
Also according to the CDC, only 31 percent of men and 65 percent of women wash their hands after using a public restroom, and about 80 percent of communicable diseases can be transferred by touch (person-to-person contact). In addition, a typical sneeze exits the body at about 200 miles per hour and emits around 40,000 droplets into the air.
“Per the CDC, handwashing with soap and water is not only simple and inexpensive, but also can dramatically reduce the number of young children who get sick,” Wagner stated. “Teaching people about handwashing helps them and their communities stay healthy.”
She added the CDC reports handwashing education in the community can:
• reduce the number of people who get sick with diarrhea by about 23 to 40 percent
• reduce absenteeism due to gastrointestinal illness in school children by 29 to 57 percent
• reduce diarrheal illness in people with weakened immune systems by about 58 percent
• reduce respiratory illnesses, like colds, in the general population by about 16 to 21 percent
Wagner and the CDC explain properly washing your hands is easy and lasts less than a minute. “Using the handwashing competency, here are the steps for handwashing, as well as use of an approved alcohol hand rub.
• Check the area for soap and paper towels before starting to wash your hands
• Prepare warm or cool running water
• Wet your hands before applying soap
• Rub your soapy hands together for at least 20 seconds
• Wash all surfaces well. This includes your wrists, palms, backs of hands, and between fingers.
• Rinse your hands thoroughly to remove all soap, keeping fingers pointed downward to rinse
• Dry your hands with a clean paper towel.
• Turn off the faucet with a paper towel and then discard the paper towels
“If your hands are not visibly soiled or you are not caring for a patient with norovirus or C diff, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer can be used to clean your hands,” Wagner continued. When using this type of product, she recommends the following:
• Put the gel in the palm of one hand
• Rub your hands together, covering the same areas as a hand wash
• Rub the product over all surfaces of your hands and fingers until they are dry.
• Do not wipe off the alcohol gel
“Always wash hands with soap and water if they are visibly soiled,” Wagner stated. She added some other activities that can require handwashing include the following:
• before preparing food
• before meals
• before and after treating an open sore, cut, or wound
• after using the bathroom
• after touching animals or animal waste
• after changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has gone to the bathroom
• after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
• after handling garbage
• when hands are dirty
• when someone around you is ill
For more information about handwashing, visit the CDC website at https://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/, or contact Wagner at 301-295-4878, or email Michelle.e.wagner7.civ@mail.mil.

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