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Hospital hygiene update: 'Is that mustard on your tie, Doctor?'

It is flu season in Warren County. It is flu season just about everywhere in the U.S. right now, and that could trips to the doctor's office or the emergency room. You may be surprised to see everyone working in clinics and hospitals wearing face masks.

Medical facilities are trying hard not to make patients, visitors and staff sicker than when they walked in. It can be a tough job, though, especially for staff who deal with multiple patients every day. Hospital-acquired infections start in a number of different ways, but they can spread with the touch of a hand that has not been washed.

The Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America has published a list of recommendations that target an obvious but often missed potential source of germs: lab coats. Lab coats and other attire worn by caregivers could host germs that could pass dangerous infections on to others.

Right now there is no hard evidence, no definitive proof that someone could pick up a hospital-acquired infection from a sweater, lab coat or even a necktie. That is why a member of the committee that developed the recommendations says they are not formal guidelines. They do, however, represent a common sense approach based in science.

The only strict "dress code" guidelines in place right now are for operating rooms. These recommendations allow hospitals and clinics to take infection prevention one step further.

Take lab coats as an example. Most doctors who wear lab coats hang them up at the end of the day and head home. The next day, the lab coat comes off the hook, and rounds begin. Research has shown that 12 days could pass before that lab coat makes it into the washer.

The common sense solution is to wash lab coats more often. These recommendations add a twist: Wear scrubs instead. The same research showed that scrubs are washed daily or every two days.

A necktie may make a man feel and look more professional, but most physicians admit that they seldom have their ties cleaned. Best to leave the tie at home or tuck it under the lab coat. The idea is to keep the tie from dangling and brushing up against something that could be carrying germs.

Cellphones and jewelry are other potential sources of germs. Hospital and clinic workers should wipe them down with disinfectant if they come in contact with patients. The same goes for lanyards, name tags and the like.

Clearly, more research is needed to see just how effective these strategies are in curbing infections. They certainly can't hurt, though, especially use in conjunction with existing safety measures.

Source: USA Today, "Germy lab coats and ties prompt dress code for doctors," Kim Painter, Jan. 21, 2014

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