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Are Dirty Lab Coats or Ties Causing Hospital-Acquired Infections?

According to a recent paper in the journal Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology, some 70 percent of doctors never bother to clean their ties. Unfortunately, about a third of those ties test positive for Staphylococcus aureus — the bacteria that causes staph infections.

Those white lab coats doctors wear? According to the paper, a survey found that the average hospital worker washes his or her scrubs every one or two days, while lab coats were typically washed only every twelfth day.

Beyond those grimy ties and lab coats, studies have found potentially harmful germs on doctors’ and hospital workers’ cuffs, sleeves, shoes and personal accessories. How often do nurses or ER attendants disinfect their cellphones? Does it matter?

It’s not yet clear. “We’ve not made the definitive link showing someone getting a hospital-acquired infection from the tip of someone’s neck tie, but there’s reason to suspect it could happen,” explained one of the paper’s author, an infectious disease specialist.

As we’ve discussed before on this blog, previous studies have shown that hand-washing guidelines for healthcare workers are only followed around 40 percent of the time, on average, and the CDC reports that poor hospital hygiene is responsible for around 5 percent of patient infections.

According to the authors, who represent the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America, it’s just good sense to ask doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers to keep their clothing and accessories cleaner. They’ve therefore developed a set of voluntary, evidence-based guidelines to help hospital workers ensure they’re not inadvertently exposing patients to nasty bugs:

  • Wear short sleeves to prevent germs hitchhiking on cuffs.
  • Don’t wear watches or rings, which may still have germs after hand-washing.
  • Avoid neckties, or at least keep them tucked in so they never touch patients.
  • Disinfect accessories such as cellphones, pagers, ID tags and lanyards regularly.
  • Stop wearing that lab coat, or at least wash it in hot water and bleach every week.

We assume that hospitals have strict guidelines in place to keep things as sterile as possible. They may, but when it comes to personal dress, those guidelines generally only apply in operating rooms.

More research needs to be done on how dangerous poor personal hygiene among hospital workers may be. Until we know, hospitals would be well-served to double-down on enforcing hand-washing policies, sterility guidelines and ensuring staff performance to the accepted standard of good medical care.

Source: USA TODAY, “Germy lab coats and ties prompt dress code for doctors,” Kim Painter, Jan. 21, 2014