A new study has a message for doctors and nurses who fail to wash their hands: Don’t think about yourself. Think about your patients.
Getting health care professionals to comply with notices to wash their hands before and after dealing with patients has been something of a thorn in the side of many hospitals. Although this simple measure limits the spread of sickness — and could potentially reduce the nation’s hospital health care bill by billions of dollars — many doctors and nurses simply ignore it. Compliance rates for hand washing in American hospitals are only around 40 percent, and years of awareness programs urging doctors to wash up or use disinfectant gels have had little effect.
Part of the problem, according to a forthcoming study in the journal Psychological Science, are the actual signs posted in hospital washrooms urging health care workers to wash up. Changing the message from “Wash Your Hands to Protect Yourself” to “Wash Your Hands to Protect Your Patients,” the study found, could motivate some doctors and nurses to wash their hands more frequently.
“There’s this perception among some health care providers that ‘I’m around sick people all the time and I don’t get sick very often, so my immune system is extra strong,’” said David Hofmann, an author of the study and a professor of organizational behavior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “But if you go back to the Hippocratic oath that all doctors adhere to, it’s ‘First do no harm.’ So if you have a sign that says ‘Hey, look, here’s a really vulnerable person you’re about to walk in and see,’ then maybe a sign focused on that person will cue this larger core value in the physician to protect the patient.”
To find out, Dr. Hofmann and his co-author, Adam Grant, took baseline measurements of the amount of soap and disinfectant caregivers used in a large North Carolina hospital. Then they measured the change in soap use when they put up different signs by the dispensers. One sign read “Hand Hygiene Prevents You from Catching Diseases.” Another read “Hand Hygiene Prevents Patients from Catching Diseases.” And a third sign, which served as a control, had a generic message: “Gel In, Wash Out.”
Self serving does not always work. It all depends on how one is taught.