You may think that you know the right way to wash your hands, but Elaine Larson can tell you for certain.
Elaine Larson is an infectious disease specialist who has written more than 200 white papers about hand hygiene. Larson is one of the most cited sources for information about whether anti bacterial soaps are more effective than regular soap (the answer is no). People also ask her if hand sanitizers with alcohol are better than washing hands with soap (yes). People also ask her if you should wash your hands as long as it takes to go through Happy Birthday two times. The answer to that is not always, you just have to be sure that you are scrubbing between fingers and under the nails.
But according to Larson, the main risks are inside hospitals. For people in the public who are healthy, hand hygiene is not as critical. But in hospitals where people are sick and prone to getting infections, hand hygiene is vital.
Larson first got involved in hand hygiene in the 1980s, when she worked as a staff nurse in Seattle. She asked a question – why weren’t infection rates in ICU patients going down after they were moved from a big shared room to private rooms where there were individual sinks where hospital workers could wash hands? Larson started to look into the types of bacteria that were on the hands of these workers. She found that most of those germs were causing infections in the patients.
Larson stated recently that this simple question about hand hygiene led to a lot of fascinating questions and answers. Thirty years later, her findings have helped to shape many of the hygiene practices in hospitals and in the public. She was one of the first experts to advocate for hand sanitizers with alcohol. She also was a co-author on the CDC 2002 guidelines for health care workers. That document recommended using hand sanitizers and not soap. Alcohol kills germs more quickly and sinks and towels are not needed.
For surgeons who use hand sanitizer before surgery, this is equal to at least five minutes using soap. When Larson first started researching alcohol for hand cleaning, many in the infection control world were concerned because they thought that people would cease washing hands. But now using hand sanitizers is standard practice in all hospitals in the US, including some of the best hospitals to work in for nurses.
Larson recently received the Distinguished Scientist Award by the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology for all of her work in the science of hand hygiene and other types of epidemiologic research.
Now, Larson’s work has started to shift away from just the germs that cause the infections, to the types of behaviors that help to promote washing of hands. Specifically, she wants to focus on encouraging policies that encourage hospital workers to wash their hands. CDC has estimated that getting infections in hospitals can cause 100,000 patient deaths each year and it costs the health care industry about $30 billion per year.
Larson has a research team working in a hospital in Massachusetts and also in longterm care facilities in New York that monitor hand sanitizing with electronic devices. Employees get feedback on how the whole group is doing in sanitizing hands. They do not record the names of individuals, because infection control is a group and team issue. Results that have come in so far have showed increased compliance.