Hygienic No, your doctor's rubber gloves could infect you with a superbug
00:51 GMT, 21 August 2012
The probability of someone cleaning their hands drops by a third when they use gloves
Like most patients, you probably think the sight of a medic wearing latex gloves is a good thing.
We so often hear horror stories of hospital-acquired bugs such as MRSA or C.difficile that gloves have become a welcome indicator of cleanliness, a sterile barrier that will protect you from germs.
But this is a delusion.
Not only do medics fail to change
their gloves between patients, but gloves lull them into a false sense
of security, so they actually clean their hands less often.
what most people won’t realise is that bacteria can travel through the
plastic gloves — ‘the dirty hand in the latex glove’ scenario, as I call
I’ve worked in
elderly care wards for the past 20 years and have seen too many patients
get struck down with an infection that could have been prevented.
while I’ve long suspected latex gloves are implicated in the
transmission of bugs, when my colleagues and I conducted a large study
of glove use by NHS workers, we were gobsmacked by the results.
We looked at 56 intensive or elderly care wards across 15 hospitals in England and Wales.
We discovered that medics observe good hand hygiene (such as cleaning their hands after contact with each patient) less than half of the time, but we also realised that the probability of someone cleaning their hands drops by a third when they use gloves.
Previous studies have shown that even if you’re wearing gloves, three to five clumps of colony-forming bacteria will travel through tiny pores in the latex and come into contact with your skin every minute (compared to 20 when you’re not wearing gloves).
And the transfer of bugs through the gloves is not a one-way street: germs can move from the nurse or doctor’s hand, through the glove and on to the next patient.
This is even more troubling when you think of a rather disgusting phenomenon called ‘spray-back’.
The transfer of bugs through the gloves is not a one-way street: Germs can move from the nurse or doctor's hand, through the glove and on to the next patient
If a medic has been dealing with bodily fluids, when they take off the gloves microscopic particles of this fluid can flick back on to the skin, carrying germs with them.
The problem is medics often don’t wash their hands in between changing gloves.
Even in intensive care units, healthcare workers wearing gloves cleaned their hands half as often as they should have.
Worse still, we were astounded to see nurses going from patient to patient without changing their gloves at all.
This was mind-boggling.
Yet subsequent interviews with some of the NHS staff members suggested there is a belief that they wear gloves to protect themselves, not the patient.
I witnessed this first-hand when I went to visit my uncle at a large teaching hospital.
As I sat with him, a nurse came into his room to change a catheter in his neck used to administer drugs and fluids.
This must be kept free of bugs and so, mindful of this, the nurse took extra care to use sterile equipment and latex gloves.
At one point she dropped a piece of the device on the floor.
But after picking it up and throwing it into the bin, she simply rinsed her gloves under the tap.
However, a cursory flick in water would not dislodge the bugs that her gloves could have picked up from the floor.
What she should have done is change her gloves.
But wearing them had caused her to let her guard down: she assumed they would deflect or kill germs.
Medical staff use gloves as a replacement for the tried and tested method of preventing infection: cleaning your hands.
Healthcare workers, and ultimately the chief executives of hospitals, need to ensure staff understand good hand hygiene.
And the next time you see a nurse or doctor in gloves, ask them when they last changed them.
For that apparently clean latex could be riddled with germs, or conceal a very dirty hand indeed.
Dr Sheldon Stone is a stroke physician and consultant in health services for elderly people at London’s Royal Free Hospital.
Interview by Kate Wighton.