Copyright © 2007 by Atul Gawande
On Washing Hands
One ordinary December day, I took a tour of my hospital with Deborah Yokoe, an infectious disease specialist, and Susan Marino, a microbiologist. They work in our hospital's infection-control unit. Their full-time job, and that of three others in the unit, is to stop the spread of infection in the hospital. This is not flashy work, and they are not flashy people. Yokoe is forty-five years old, gentle voiced, and dimpled. She wears sneakers at work. Marino is in her fifties and reserved by nature. But they have coped with influenza epidemics, Legionnaires' disease, fatal bacterial meningitis, and, just a few months before, a case that, according to the patient's brain-biopsy results, might have been Creutzfeld-Jakob disease—a nightmare, not only because it is incurableand fatal but also because the infectious agent that causes it, known as a prion, cannot be killed by usual heat-sterilization procedures. By the time the results came back, the neurosurgeon's brain-biopsy instruments might have transferred the disease to other patients, but infection-control team members tracked the instruments down in time and had them chemically sterilized. Yokoe and Marino have seen measles, the plague, and rabbit fever (which is caused by a bacterium that is extraordinarily contagious in hospital laboratories and feared as a bioterrorist weapon). They once instigated a nationwide recall of frozen strawberries, having traced a hepatitis A outbreak to a batch served at an ice cream social. Recently at large in the hospital, they told me, have been a rotavirus, a Norwalk virus, several strains of Pseudomonas bacteria, a superresistant Klebsiella, and the ubiquitous scourges of modern hospitals—resistant Staphylococcus aureus and Enterococcus faecalis, which are a frequent cause of pneumonias, wound infections, and bloodstream infections.
Each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, two million Americans acquire an infection while they are in the hospital. Ninety thousand die of that infection. The hardest part of the infection-control team's job, Yokoe says, is not coping with the variety of contagions they encounter or the panic that sometimes occurs among patients and staff. Instead, their greatest difficulty is getting clinicians like me to do the one thing that consistently halts the spread of infections: wash our hands.
There isn't much they haven't tried. Walking about the surgical floors where I admit my patients, Yokoe and Marino showed me the admonishing signs they have posted, the sinksthey have repositioned, the new ones they have installed. They have made some sinks automated. They have bought special five-thousand-dollar "precaution carts" that store everything for washing up, gloving, and gowning in one ergonomic, portable, and aesthetically pleasing package. They have given away free movie tickets to the hospital units with the best compliance. They have issued hygiene report cards. Yet still, we have not mended our ways. Our hospital's statistics show what studies everywhere else have shown—that we doctors and nurses wash our hands one-third to one-half as often as we are supposed to. Having shaken hands with a sniffling patient, pulled a sticky dressing off someone's wound, pressed a stethoscope against a sweating chest, most of us do little more than wipe our hands on our white coats and move on—to see the next patient, to scribble a note in the chart, to grab some...
"It's hard to think of a writer working today who makes such good use of man's quest to avoid pain and death. Atul Gawande is not only adding to the small shelf of books by doctors that every layman should read. He's using medicine to help anyone who hopes to do anything better." - Michael Lewis, author of The Blind Side
"Better is a mesmerizing book with fascinations on every page, told with mastery, insight, compassion, and humility by a surgeon who doesn't flinch from taboo subjects or self-examination. His topics range from the invisible to the unspeakable, and some chapters are exciting medical mysteries. On every page, one meets a candid and thoughtful man, who pays close attention, and who somehow manages to find the right balance between intimacy and respectfulness, in a world that can be inhospitable to both." - Diane Ackerman, author of An Alchemy of Mind
"Better is a masterpiece, a series of stories set inside the four walls of a hospital that end up telling us something unforgettable about the world outside." - Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink and The Tipping Point