There are a lot of germs out there. As doctors, who see many patients daily, it is very important that we wash our hands frequently. In fact it is recommended that doctors wash their hands before and after each and every patient seen. It would be nice if we washed our hands even after every patient seen.
A recent study shows that our hand washing practices are pretty darn bad. When aware that someone for infectious disease was watching, about 47% washed their hands regularly. However, when unaware (student volunteers were used to monitor physicians during their practice), only 22% practiced frequent hand washing.
Why the huge difference when watched and not watched? Well, that’s human nature. If big brother is right there, then there will be more compliance than usual. We as humans try to do the right thing, especially when monitored. This is called the Hawthorne effect.
As a patient, you should feel free to ask your provider whether he or she did in fact wash their hands before seeing you. Germs are all to easily transmitted. Hospital environments are at much greater risk for transmitting bugs which are resistant to multiple antibiotics.
Washing with alcohol based lotions works very well in preventing transmission of most bacteria, with the notable exception of Clostridium difficile. This bad boy can lead to severe bloody diarrhea. In other words, if a patient has diarrhea, then the doctor should wash his hands as usual with soap and water, otherwise alcohol based lotions work just fine.