Saturday, November 28, 2009

A medical shot in the dark that worked


Pudd'nhead Wilson, one of Mark Twain's creations, said: "Nothing so needs reforming as other people's habits." With all the emphasis on washing our hands today, I'm encouraging the good example of constant handwashing. Then Pudd'nhead would say: "Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example."

I'll begin by annoying doctors, nurses and hospitals. My pet peeve is when in hospital, I like for my doctor, in my presence, to wash his hands before peering over me.

When a doctor, nurse or visitor visits my hospital room, I have no compunction asking them to wash their hands. Even if the physician is a well-known and famous man of science, I request he wash his hands as I watch. All health providers know this and make a practice of letting the patient see them wash their hands, and most are not offended. They probably washed before they visited my room. Even if they say they just washed, politely request they do it in front of you. Most care-takers will see the wisdom of making the patient feel he is being properly cared for.

Making such a simple request is the patient's right, but more important it is the patient's responsibility. No one is as concerned about my health than me. The caretakers care (we can't thank them enough), but in the end, it is the observant patient that stays free of nosocomial infections. (Nosocomial infections are those acquired by patients while in the hospital, unrelated to the illness of the patient.)

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates five to fifteen percent of all hospital patients acquire some kind of nosocomial infection. (Source: Christine L. Case, Ed.D., Microbiology Professor at Skyline College)

Few of us ever heard of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweiss. He was a Hungarian medical doctor in the late 1840s in the maternity wards of a Vienna hospital. Women in childbirth were dying at alarming rates there. Up to 25 percent of women who delivered their babies in hospitals died of fever.

Dr. Semmelweiss observed that the washing of hands between patients might help more women live. He began using soap and water and later prescribed ablutions with chlorinated lime water. His shot in the dark was successful But the doctors and staff greeted this with disdain for a long time. Records revealed his success, but other doctors were so hostile to this revolutionary "ceremony" as they called it, Semmelweiss resigned. He was later successful, but still a joke to his colleagues.

In 1879 at the Academy of Medicine in Paris, Louis Pasteur, who contributed to germ theories pushed by Robert Koch, stood and said: "The thing that kills women with [childbirth fever] you doctors that carry deadly microbes from sick women to healthy ones."

According to the United States CDC, "Handwashing is the single most important means of preventing the spread of infection." The report goes on to say we are all potentially at risk of contracting hand-transmitted illnesses, one-third of our population is especially vulnerable, including pregnant women, children, old people, and those with weakened immune systems."

Mark Twain wisely wrote: "The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don't want, drink what you don't like, and do what you'd druther not." Wash your hands even if you'd druther not.

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