You can prevent medical malpractice by insisting that your doctors wash their hands.

Much has been written lately about hospital-acquired infections. The Center for Disease Control estimates that such infections annually account for 2 million infections, cause 90,000 deaths, and $4.5 billion in excess health care costs. Although the causes of these infections are numerous and varied, it is universally understood that many of these infections could be prevented if health care providers simply washed their hands after administering aid to each patient. In a recent article in FindLaw, Sherry F. Kolb, a professor at Rutgers Law School, writes that we all can and should protect ourselves by insisting that doctors wash their hands before touching us.

The medical community has known for over a century that germs can cause disease. Nevertheless, Ms. Kolb learned that many doctors and nurses fail to wash their hands between patients when she researched and wrote prior article on hospital-acquired infections. She recounted her personal experiences with a two-year-old daughter, who required regular bladder catheterization. On at least two occasions, health care providers were prepared to insert the catheter without having first washed their hands. The nurse and the doctor involved on both occasions claimed that handwashing was unnecessary because they were wearing gloves. However, Ms. Kolb knew from an article in the American Journal of Infection Control that using gloves was not a substitute for handwashing. Why? Because one’s hands touch the outside of the gloves when putting them on. Both eventually washed their hands before treating Ms. Kolb’s young daughter.

Ms. Kolb’s standard practice is now to ask if hands have been washed unless she personally observes the act of handwashing. As Ms. Kolb points out, asking a doctor or nurse to wash their hands can often anger the health care provider in question. But as she notes, it is better to be safe than sorry. We all should consider following her advice.

Sources: Center for Disease Control, FindLaw, American Journal of Infection Control