03/28/2008 02:47 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Why Hand Washing Is Your Best Friend

The last time you had a doctor's appointment, did you notice whether your doctor washed their hands before and after examining you? What about your your waiter-- did they wash their hands in the restroom in between main courses? Don't forget the hot dog and falafel vender preparing food with one hand and touching crumpled dollar bills immediately afterwards. Sound familiar? Few can dispute that hand washing is considered the single most important ritual that prevents the spread of disease and infection.

Sneezing and coughing are not the only modes of disease transmission from person to person. Handling raw meat and fish, bathroom visits, changing a diaper, washing or playing with a pet , taking care of an ill loved one, and shaking hands with the masses are just a sample of the many activities that Americans do routinely that are capable of spreading diseases by way of hand to hand and hand to mouth transmission.

Hand washing is important for many reasons. For one thing, it is considered a first line defense against infectious respiratory and gastrointestinal communicable diseases. Infection control is a major concern of all hospitals. Infections contracted by patients and workers in hospitals are the fourth largest killer in America and an estimated 2 million patients contract in hospital infections of which 100,000 plus will die. Hospital infections add an estimated 30.5 billion to the nation's hospital costs each year.

When Betsy McCaughey served as Lt. Governor of New York, people came to her with many kinds of health problems, but one problem stood out. Again and again she heard tragic accounts of people who went into the hospital and contracted a deadly infection. "Hospital infections kill more than five times as many people as AIDS," she says. When she left public office, she vowed to do something to stop these needless deaths. "That's why I founded the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths (RID). Our goal is to improve hospital cleanliness and procedures," McCaughey explains. "It's an outrage that so many doctors fail to clean their hands before touching a patient."

The Association of Infection Control Professionals maintains that health care workers directly in contact with patients are a leading cause of nosocomial infections. Some researchers allege that doctors and nurses cleanse their hands only 30% of the recommended and required time between patient contact and procedures. This may lead to the development of drug-resistant strains of bacteria , particularly the methicillin-resistant staph aureus (MRSA) infections which can lead to serious and life-threatening consequences and have been the subject of many reports lately.

These infections do not respond well to the available antibiotics that in the past have proven to be effective in killing the pathogens responsible for causing the infection. McCaughey urges patients to ask all caregivers, including doctors, nurses, and health care aides to wash their hands before treating you. "If you're worried about being too aggressive, just remember that you're life is at stake," says McCaughey. "And don't be misled by gloves, because if caregivers have pulled on gloves without cleaning their hands first, the gloves are already contaminated before they touch you." For other steps that patients can take to protect themselves from a hospital infection, McCaughey recommends visitng the RID website at

Washing ones hands is a simple, yet most effective means of preventing unwanted illness. Hospitals in New York City, such as New York-Presbyterian Hospital/ Weill Cornell Medical Center have launched successful campaigns to combat hospital-borne infections that focus on frequent hand washing by professional staff and all hospital workers. It doesn't cost anything but a few moments of one's time,yet few people fully appreciate the importance of the often overlooked ritual of washing one's hands .