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Wash your hands and prevent illness

Published 12/05/2017

Jane McCarthy, RN, BS, left, and Veronica Paolantonio, RN take infection prevention very seriously at South County Hospital

Before retiring this past fall, when Jane McCarthy, RN, BS, told people to wash their hands, they listened. As an infection prevention (IP) specialist at South County Hospital, Jane would make her rounds throughout the hospital to inspect employee hand washing, one of the most effective ways to prevent harmful germs from spreading. She observed how well staff washed their hands during their daily routines and recorded her findings. As infection prevention specialist, her job was to monitor trends in infection prevention and identify where hand washing and other infection prevention practices can improve.

What prompted the healthcare industry to become more rigorous toward infection prevention?

Infection prevention became much more serious in health care back in the early 1980s when Ryan White, a 13 year-old boy from Indiana, was diagnosed with AIDS after receiving a blood transfusion. At that time there were little or no precautions – gloves, gowns, masks, etc. – to help prevent the spread of infectious diseases. That was when we saw the introduction of PPE [Personal Protective Equipment] on inpatient units. The Centers for Disease Control implemented the use of disposable gloves, gowns, and face masks to protect patients and visitors from the spread of infection when under care in an isolation room.

How has infection prevention evolved?

This has been part of an era of ushering in modern sanitizers (Purel, Symmetry) and broad spectrum hand soap. Believe it or not, not all soaps remove organisms that grow on your hands. There is a specific type of soap employed in clinical settings.

Has infection prevention with anti-bacterial sanitizers and soaps gone too far?

There is no such thing as washing your hands too much. Too often, people go to walk-ins or their doctor’s office with colds or viruses and want immediate relief and beg for antibiotics to suppress the symptoms. With the overuse of antibiotics, there is now more resistance of organisms with no new antibiotics being created to combat them.

What are some common mistakes people make in their hand washing habits?

Everyone should be diligent about washing their hands, whether entering or exiting a hospital room, or at home, work and school. Washing your hands is an easy thing to do that significantly reduces the spread of infection.

When washing hands with a non-antimicrobial or antimicrobial soap:

  • Wet hands first with warm water
  • Apply the recommended amount of product to use and rub hands together vigorously for at least 15 seconds, covering all surfaces of the hands and fingers.
  • Rinse hands with warm water and dry thoroughly with a paper towel.
  • Use towel to turn off faucet.

When decontaminating hands with a waterless antiseptic agent such as an alcohol-based hand rub:

  • Apply product to palm of one-hand and rub hands together, covering all surfaces of hands and fingers rubbing until hands are dry.
  • Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations on the volume of product to use. If an adequate volume of an alcohol-based hand scrub us used, it should take 15 to 20 seconds for hands to dry.

Is the spread of germs more of a concern during the holidays?

The holiday season and winter are very sensitive times hygiene-wise to visit loved ones at the hospital. If you are sick, consider staying away from hospitalized or ill loved ones to protect them. If you must visit and are sneezing or coughing, it’s important to wear a provided face mask and wash hands frequently with soap and warm water or use hand sanitizer provided at various points throughout the hospital.

Is infection prevention becoming somewhat of a sub-specialty within the healthcare industry?

People think infection prevention sounds boring, but that is far from the truth because it is always changing. IP is a collaborative field that provides nurses the opportunity to focus on just patients and helping people. It doesn’t have that competitive feel among hospitals like general or service line specific nursing. I hope more nurses entering the field choose to make infection protection a priority.

 For more information on infection prevention and control at South County Hospital, visit or call 401-788-1658.