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Hand washing

Anesthesiologists spread dangerous infections during surgery because they don't wash their hands

Thursday, January 20, 2011 by: S. L. Baker, features writer
Tags: hand washing, infections, health news

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(NaturalNews) With all the amazing and advanced medical technology available in the 21st century, operating rooms must be extremely safe when it comes to being sterile and clean for surgery. At least, that is what most of us assume. But now a new study just reported in Anesthesia & Analgesia, the official journal of the International Anesthesia Research Society (IARS), shows that's a dangerous assumption. In fact, bacteria -- including some very dangerous varieties -- are commonly found on the hands of anesthesia providers, resulting in high rates of transmission of these germs to the surgical field during operations.

The reason behind this hand contamination is nothing less than astounding. It turns out, anesthesiologists simply aren't washing their hands or washing them well enough. The study points out that while other factors contribute to bacteria being spread in operating rooms, the problem is mostly from a lack of compliance with plain, old-fashioned hand-washing.

"As anesthesiologists, we like to think that the surgical drapes protect the patient from tens of trillions of microorganisms that are in and on our bodies," Dr. Steven L. Shafer of Columbia University, who is Editor-in-Chief of Anesthesia & Analgesia, said in a statement to the media. "Nope! These studies provide evidence that our bacterial flora contribute to surgical site infections."

Dr. Randy W. Loftus and colleagues of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire, carried out a detailed study to investigate the specific origin of bacteria transmitted to the surgical field in 164 operating room procedures that all involved general anesthesia. The researchers performed culture tests and discovered that bacteria were transmitted to the stopcock valves of the intravenous lines in 11.5% of procedures. And in about 50% of these cases, the bacteria found in the intravenous lines were the same as those identified on the hands of anesthesia providers, including attending anesthesiologists, residents, and nurse-anesthetists

What's more, before the start of surgical procedures, contamination with potential disease-causing bacteria was identified on the hands of anesthesia providers in 66% of cases. And bacteria were transmitted in the operating room in an astounding 89% of procedures.

The study found there were several factors that were linked with an increased risk of bacterial transmission. For example, germ transmission was more likely when the anesthesiologist had to supervise more than one operating room simultaneously. The spreading of bacteria was also more likely in older patients, and when the patient was sent directly from the operating room to the intensive care unit.

"Contamination of provider hands before patient care represents an important modifiable risk factor for bacterial cross-contamination," Dr. Loftus and colleagues wrote in the journal article. "These findings support initiatives designed to improve intraoperative hand hygiene of anesthesia providers both before and during patient care, as well as intraoperative decontamination strategies."

An editorial accompanying the study pointed out there that while there's a need to improve decontamination measures, there's little doubt that what the authors call "abysmal compliance with hand-washing recommendations" is the major contributor to the spread of surgical infections.

"Although we know that hand-washing is an important step, our compliance is poor, and there is little excuse for hospitals not implementing systems that facilitate compliance with hand-washing guidelines," Dr. Shafer stated.

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