Did you know that the practice of handwashing was not always an established practice in the medical community? In the 1800’s surgeons did not scrub their hands between patients and medical doctors did not wash hands between patients. In the 1840’s a Hungarian doctor, Ignaz Semmelweis, noticed that his medical students had a high mortality rate from childbirth fever, women and babies were dying during childbirth. He observed that the midwives next door had very low mortality rates with their maternity patients.
The difference between the two practitioners was hand washing. The midwives washed their hands between each patient and the medical students (coming from cadaver dissecting class) did not. Dr. Semmelweis quickly began to implement hand washing with his students and was excited to see the mortality rates from childbirth fever drop in their patients as well.
We all have microbes that live in and on us. We need these bacteria and other microorganisms because they provide many health benefits like creating vitamins and hormones, breaking down chemicals and foods and the destruction of other harmful microbes. Bacteria and other microbes that live with our body all the time are called normal microbiota. We have a mutual symbiotic relationship with them – we both provide benefits and no harm to each other. This is why you are encouraged to take probiotics. Probiotics are simply our normal microbiota!
Most microbes living in or on our system are well regulated. However, when our system becomes compromised over use of medicines, illnesses, nutritional deficiencies or stress, they can become opportunistic pathogens. This means they cause disease to an ill body when they can’t in a healthy one. That’s why it’s so critical for healthcare workers to wash their hands to protect their sick patients.
Below is a picture of a hand washing experiment the nursing students at Platt North do in microbiology. To everyone’s surprise, the results are the same for most students in every class.
On the first petri plate, the one with 4 quadrants, the student did not use soap. Students use the first quadrant (#1) to make a fingerprint of their microbes before any tests are begun. In the next 3 quadrants on the same plate, they simply rinse their hands with water, shake off the water and make a finger print, rinse, shake and repeat. As you can see, there is not much of a decrease in microbes (the little yellow and white dots) on any of the quadrants. How often do you just rinse your hands in the bathroom?
The second plate with 5 zones, uses soap, hand scrubbing and hand sanitizer. Zone 1 and zone 2 are both washing the hands with soap and water, rinsing, shaking off the excess and then making a fingerprint with the same finger on the same hand. In zone 3, the student scrubs (with a scrub brush) for 2 minutes using soap and water. In zone 4, the student scrubs with soap and water for 4 minutes. In zone 5, they use hand sanitizer.
You can see that even after all of that scrubbing, soap, and sanitizer there are still numerous microbes growing on each zone of the plate. Which means that’s still on the student’s hands. This is why hand scrubbing is so crucial. You can easily pass on microbes to patients if you are in the medical field or to customers if you are in the culinary industry. Washing with soap and water for 10 seconds is not enough to decrease the spread of infection.
How long do you spend washing your hands after you go to the bathroom? Do you use soap, do you get under the nails? Do you touch the faucet handle or door handle with your bare hands afterwards? These are all important steps in preventing the spread of bacteria.
Dr. April Morford
2019 - Present