The 10 Easiest Ways to Violate HIPAA

  1. Leave paperwork face-up on the dashboard or front seat.
  2. Leave your computer unsecured wherever the hell you please.
  3. Tweet a picture of the badass MVA you just did, with a victim obviously identifiable to anybody who reads the news (“A car struck a tree on Route 421 today, driver Jim Smith was rushed to the hospital…”).
  4. Tell everybody about the celebrity you just transported.
  5. Tell everybody about the coworker you just transported.
  6. Crack jokes and make comments about the patient you just dropped off while in the elevator, or in the public ambulance bay outside — usually while the patient’s family is eavesdropping.
  7. Post a Facebook status about the crazy shooting you ran, sharing intimate details about the patient who was probably the only person shot in your town that day.
  8. Leave paperwork in the truck at end-of-shift.
  9. Let a facesheet (demographics page) escape into the wind as you fruitlessly chase it down the street.
  10. Answering curious questions about the patient’s status or destination from the random person on scene, I’m not sure who that is, probably just the nosy guy who lives downstairs.

Clinical Judgment: How to Do Less


It was around 11:00 AM when we were called to a local skilled nursing facility for a hip fracture. The patient was a 61-year-old male with mild mental retardation and several other issues, who’d fallen last night while walking to the bathroom. He was helped back to bed with moderate hip pain, and the staff physician stopped by to check him out. A portable X-ray was performed, which the physician interpreted as showing a proximal femur fracture as well as an associated pelvic fracture. This was communicated to us via a scrawled note and a cursory report.

The patient was found resting comfortably in bed, semi-Fowler’s and alert. He had no complaints at rest, although his pelvis and left femoral region were mildly tender and quite painful upon movement. No deformity was notable and there was no obvious instability. His vitals were stable and he was generally well-appearing, in no apparent distress. He denied bumping his head and had no pain or tenderness in the head or neck.

We gently insinuated a scoop stretcher underneath him, filled the nearby voids with towels and other linen, and bundled him into a snug, easily-movable package. Then we gave him the slow ride to his requested emergency department, a teaching hospital in town just a few minutes away.

We rolled into the ED and were lifting him into bed on the scoop when a young man entered the room, bescrubbed and serious-looking. I gave a brief report. As the words “pelvic fracture” left my lips, his mental alarms started visibly beeping and flashing, and he hurriedly asked, “What kind of pelvic fracture?”

“We don’t know. All we’ve got is the radiology note, which doesn’t say much.”

“Okay, but pelvic fractures can be a big deal. It could be … ” he sucked in air, “… open-book. There could be a lot of bleeding.”

I stared at him. “Well, sure. But he’s been stable since last night, and has a basically normal physical with no complaints at rest. He’s not exactly circling the drain.”

He didn’t seem to hear me as he briskly approached the patient and began poking him and asking questions. While we pulled our stretcher out of the room, he asked, “Does your neck hurt at all?”

Now that the patient had been stuck on a scoop stretcher for over twenty minutes, he thought for a moment and then shrugged. “Sure.” The doctor immediately ordered the placement of a cervical collar.

As we escaped, he was on the phone to the SNF, and the last thing I heard was him berating them with his urgent need to know exactly what type of pelvic calamity the patient had suffered.


What was the failure here? It was a failure of clinical judgment.

Clinical judgment is a phrase which means different things to different people, and often its meaning is so nebulous (much like “patient advocacy“) that it sounds good while saying nothing. But most would agree that it means something like this: the ability to combine textbook knowledge and personal experience, applying them intelligently to the current patient’s situation to yield an accurate sense of the possible diagnoses and the costs vs. benefits of possible treatments. In other words, it means knowing what the patient’s probably got and what to do about it, which is the heart of medicine anyway. So what’s all the fuss about?

In reality, when clinical judgment is mentioned, what’s often meant is something specific: the wisdom to know when something’s not wrong. Much of medicine is about planning for the worst, ruling out the badness, and looking for the unlikely-but-possible occult killer that nobody wants to miss. As a result, we often act as if nearly everybody is seriously ill, even when they probably aren’t.

On a practical level, most complaints — from chest pain to the itchy toe — could conceivably represent a disaster. Anything’s possible. So if we want to truly adopt perfectly mindless caution, we should be intubating every patient and admitting them directly to the ICU so that we’re ready when their skin melts off and their eyes turn backwards.

But we can’t do that, and we shouldn’t. So how do we know when to do a little less? Clinical judgment.

Clinical judgment is the acumen to assess a patient and say, “I think we’re okay here. Let’s hold off on that.” It’s what you develop when you have both the knowledge and experience to understand that a person is low-risk, and that certain tests or treatments are more likely to harm than to hurt them. That doesn’t mean that nothing will be done, or that more definitive rule-out tests will not occur, but it means you’re not freaking out in the meanwhile. It’s a triage thing.

Put another way, imagine the patient who you’re placing in spinal immobilization, or providing with supplemental oxygen, or to whom you’re securing a splint. They ask, “Look, I don’t much like this; do I really need it?” Well, I don’t know, rockstar — does he? If you’re simply acting on algorithms, reflexively doing x because you found y, then you really don’t know. How important is that oxygen? To answer that, you’d need to truly understand the benefits versus the potential harms, which means having a strong grasp of the mechanism of action, familiarity with the relevant literature (including the pertinent odds ratios, NNT and so forth), prior experience with similar patients, et cetera… only with that kind of knowledge do you really understand what’s happening. In essence, the patient is asking for the informed element of informed consent, something he’s entitled to, and you can’t provide it if you don’t have it yourself.

But when you do develop that depth and breadth of knowledge, you gain a special ability. It’s the ability to do less. When you truly understand what you’re dealing with, and more importantly, what you’re not dealing with, you can titrate medicine to what’s actually needed and stop there. Along with the knowledge comes the confidence, because you don’t merely know, you know that you know; in other words, you don’t need to take precautionary steps merely because you’re worried there might be considerations you don’t understand.

When it comes to withholding anything, even the kitchen sink, you might ask, “isn’t there risk here?” And strictly speaking, there is risk. But you can set that bar wherever you want. The important thing to grasp is that “doing everything for everyone” is not the “safe” approach; overtriage and overtreatment are not benign. All those things you’re doing have a cost. They may cause real harm. Even at best, they cost time and money, and subject the patient to unnecessary discomfort and inconvenience. We’d like to minimize all that whenever possible.

So, we return to the gentleman with the pelvic fracture. Strictly speaking, fracture of the pelvis has the potential to be life-threatening; certain types of unstable fracture can cause massive bleeding, along with damage to nervous, urinary, and other structures. So a textbook response to “pelvic fracture?” might be to treat it as a high-risk trauma.

But a patient with an unstable, severely hemorrhaging open-book pelvic fracture probably wouldn’t look like that. It would be evident; it would cause a number of apparent effects, such as pain and distress, shock signs, altered vitals, deformity or palpable instability. Except in bizarre cases or in patients who are clinically difficult to evaluate, big problems create big changes. While it’s true that we don’t know exactly what the X-ray showed, so one could theoretically argue for any conceivable pathology, there’s no question that the patient appeared stable, had remained unchanged for many hours, and had apparently been judged low-acuity after evaluation and imaging by his own doctor. In other words, let’s take it easy.

The question of spinal immobilization is another example. Strictly speaking, could we rule out the possibility of a cervical spine fracture? Well, no. Not without CT and MRI and even then who knows. But the fall was many hours ago, the patient was freely mobile and turning his head throughout that period, had no peripheral neurological deficits, denied striking his head or loss of consciousness, and quite frankly, had no pain until he spent twenty minutes with his head against a metal board.

It’s not often that you find a doctor more concerned about C-spine than an EMT. How did it happen here?

Despite the fact that we delivered the patient to a major tertiary center, it was nevertheless a teaching hospital, and the new interns had just hit the wards. While this particular clinician was undoubtedly smart and well-educated, at this stage he had about two weeks of experience behind him, and that is not conducive to providing judicious (rather than applied-by-spatula) care. He had neither the experience to know when to take it easy, nor the confidence in that experience to stand by such a decision.

We don’t want to take this concept to its extreme, which would involve doing very little for most of our patients. In the end, this is still emergency medicine, and emergency care will always involve screening for the deadly needle in the benign haystack. There’s also danger in simply becoming lazy and burned-out, and using Procrustean application of cynical “street smarts” to justify never bothering with anything. The real goal is to do the right things for the right reasons, no more, no less. And to get to that point, you have to put in some time.

Live from Prospect St: The Big Crunch (part 1)

It’s 4:00 PM on a gloomy Friday in Chandlerville, and you’re the technician for the A2, a dual-EMT, transporting BLS unit dedicated to the city. Chandlerville is a small town, but densely populated, and its numerous industrial districts are frequent sources of work. 911 dispatch is directly through the fire department, which also sends a BLS fire apparatus to assist on all medical calls; your company’s ALS is also available by request. You are equipped with finger-stick glucometry, glucose, aspirin, and epinephrine.

After a “man down” call that ended in a patient refusal, you’re now returning to quarters. Just as you’re beginning to back into the garage, a tone sounds.

Engine 3 and Ambulance 2, respond to 2108 Coastal Rd, the Empire Shipping Company, for an MVA. That’s two-one-oh-eight Coastal Road, in front of Empire Shipping, for an MVA. Engine 3?

“Engine 3 is responding.”

Ambulance 2?

As your partner flips on the lights and pulls out to the street, he speaks into the radio: “Ambulance 2 has 2108 Coastal Rd.”

Time out 16:01.

Coastal Road is a long connector that wraps around the edge of town, and you glance at the map book to confirm that the 2000 block will be near the very end, about as far away as you can get in Chandlerville. Engine 3 is stationed in that district, however, so they arrive within minutes.

“Engine 3 to Firecom.”

Firecom answering.

“We’re off at 2108 Coastal Road. Two-car MVA, car versus truck. Multiple injured parties and entrapment. Start an ALS unit and a ladder for extrication.”

Engine 3, you have a car versus truck, multiple injuries with entrapment. Break. Ladder 3, respond to 2108 Coastal Rd for the MVA; Engine 3 is on scene and A2 is responding. Time out 16:04.

A few seconds later, your company radio dispatches Paramedic 12 to the same address, after Chandlerville Firecom contacts them via landline. The P12 starts responding, but they’re coming from two towns away, with an ETA of 10+ minutes. The field supervisor also starts rolling from an unknown location to assist. 30 seconds later, Engine 3 updates that they have an injured adult and several children.

Now very awake, you reflect that the nearest hospital will be Chandlerville Memorial, a 3–5 minute emergent transport (10 minutes otherwise). The nearest large tertiary center, Bullitt Medical Center — a Level I adult trauma center and a designated pediatric ED — is 15 minutes emergently (25 otherwise). The nearest Level I pediatric trauma center, however, is the Children’s Hospital, which is also 15 minutes but in the opposite direction; they do not receive adult patients.

Ladder 3 arrives on scene momentarily, and you pull up a few minutes later. As you park and call yourself out, you observe a Ford sedan with its front left corner smashed in, two feet of its fender and frame crumpled. This is evidently the result of driving almost headlong into the side of an 18-wheeler. It appears that the driver swerved right to avoid the truck, undercutting its rear wheels and “submarining” itself; the damage reaches the passenger compartment, but there does not appear to be significant intrusion. The truck itself seems minimally damaged.

As you jump out, a firefighter waves you down. “We’ve got three!” he announces. “Mom’s in the driver’s seat; she seems really loopy, probably drunk. Her door is just dented, we popped it open. But her kids are over there.”

Twenty feet away, you see two young girls, around 4 years old, each in the arms of a firefighter. They are crying loudly and clearly upset, with no visible injuries. The mother is hidden from sight in the sedan. The driver of the truck is nowhere to be seen.


What are your initial steps for addressing this scene?

Who appears to be the first priority for care?

What resources will you need? Which, if any, should you cancel?


Continued in part 2 and the conclusion

Product Review: Shoes for Crews Maverick

About a month ago I was solicited over email by a marketing agent working on behalf of Shoes for Crews, a designer and vendor of its own line of work shoes and boots. They offered me a free pair of their boots — my choice — in exchange for a review on this site.

I was, at the time, extremely reluctant and uncertain about this. I have very little to offer as a blogger and “authority,” and the small service I do provide is largely predicated upon my credibility; in other words, I may not know much, but I try to be as honest, impartial, and accurate with the small amount of information that I do provide. Taking free swag in exchange for kind words seems like a slippery slope at best. It’s more important to me to be able to, in the future, recommend a specific product because it’s worked well for me — without anybody wondering if I’m getting a kick-back for it — than to benefit from occasional free goodies.

I eventually agreed under the clear and explicit terms that I would write exactly what I thought, with no prevarication or white-washing. If I liked the boots, I’d say that; if I had reservations, I’d share them; and if I thought they had no role in EMS, then I’d say that too, and in that case their marketing effort would be counter-productive. They agreed to this, which I suppose was a calculated gamble.

So here’s the review. I doubt that this company will be sending me more boots, whether or not they appreciate this post, but in the future the same type of situation may arise, so I’m very eager to hear any opinions — positive or negative — on this practice. Does it leave a bad taste in your mouth, and make you less inclined to run your eye over our next volume on drug interactions or pulsus paradoxus? Or do you find this sort of thing useful?


The Company

Shoes for Crews is not a new company, although they’re new to me; they’ve been around for several decades now. Their claim to fame seems to be their slip-resistant soles, which use a patented tread-pattern and material to allow high traction in dangerous environments like wet floors or oil splatters. Their line runs from slip-ons to high-top firefighting boots, and the general theme is similar to Red Wings — basically footwear for working folks who are on their feet all day and need both comfort and protection.

Lately they seem to have been making a marketing blitz, possibly due to enlisting the help of the service that contacted me, and I’ve been seeing their ads everywhere. I even received a memo from HR at my job offering a company discount for their products. The social media angle has been aggressive (via Facebook, Twitter, and obviously blogs like this), and on some level I have to admire it. After all, it’s clearly working.

In my experience, boots for EMS fall into about three ranges. There’s the low-end range, ballpark of $40 or so, which is mainly low-cut shoes you find at Walmart or other generic retailers, intended for waiters and entry-level jobs. They can look good and seem somewhat serviceable for brief periods, but invariably they fall apart, sometimes catastrophically, after a few months. After that, there’s the mid-range, around $100, where the bulk of workhorse EMS and police boots fall — Bates, 5.11, Rocky, etc. These are good boots that wear well and last, perhaps, from 1–4 years depending on care and your tolerance for their final appearance. (All of my own boots have been this type.) Finally, there’s the high-end lines — Haix, Danner, and others — usually in the $200 range. These should last approximately forever, are built from high-end materials with scrupulous manufacturing, and ideally add an extra level of comfort.

Shoes for Crews seems to sit on the low end of the mid-range category. Many of their boots are in the $70–$80 territory, which is a pretty affordable boot if you’ll wear it for a solid few years.


The Boots

As I flipped through their collection, my first impression was that there weren’t too many styles that seemed suited for EMS. Typically our uniforms require black footwear that will take a polish, and I like a side-zip for easy ins and outs.

The models that seemed most appropriate included the Ranger; the Yukon; the Expedition; the Empire; and the Legionnaire. (None, sadly, included a zipper. Maybe next year.) Eventually, I settled on the Maverick, a recent release.

Here they are new out of the box:

First impression: well-built, good looking all-leather boots. They are relatively low-cut, but they are clearly boots and not shoes; here’s a comparison next to my 5.11 ATACs.

They do have a white-threaded stitching, adding a bit of accent against the black; however, it is barely noticeable and I doubt would run afoul of anybody’s uniform policies. After a few polishes it will probably fade completely.

The lacing system is a typical hiking-boot style, with hooks instead of D-rings for the top two pairs. This is supposed to make it easier to get your foot in and out, but to me it just adds to the lacing process and makes donning and removing them a bit of a chore. I also noticed a couple of the hooks get bent outward during regular use; they bent back easily, but it may be a common issue. Although I didn’t try it, I wonder if you could use a pair of pliers to fold them tightly in around the lace, converting them into semi-permanent lace-retaining tubes instead of open hooks.

Here’s the slip-resistant soles after some wear:

Slip resistance, although undoubtedly positive, is not exactly something I lay awake at night worrying about. However, I admit that these soles felt good, with solid traction on all surfaces including soapy washfloors and the occasional grease patch. They seemed to do well on loose soil as well, although I didn’t do much off-roading in them. They are also, for any aspiring ninjas, very quiet.

The uppers are all leather, without any nylon or mixed surfaces. Although it takes longer to polish, I prefer this look to a two-tone or “patchy” style; one does wonder how well it breathes in the heat, but I had little trouble on some reasonably hot days. They felt decent in the cold as well (it’s been a rollercoaster month), so for moderately extreme temperature ranges I’d give them a thumbs up.

The product page makes the fairly strong claim of “waterproof.” Many boots say water resistant and some say waterproof, but within the low and middle price ranges this usually means some kind of external treatment or half-hearted membrane that lasts a year or two at the most. I saw no mention of a Gore-Tex or similar liner on mine, so that may be the case here as well. However, they do have a gusseted tongue, and on moderately rainy days, as well as a leisurely test session of soaking them in several inches of bathwater, I noticed not one drop of moisture penetration.

This is how they look after about a month of use (every shift at work plus many days off):

So they’re reasonably durable. The leather is actually somewhat soft, so I have some concern for how it’ll hold up in the long-term; you notice one small cut already on the left boot. I gave them one quick shine when I first received them, and that’s held up well. The particular style at the edges also seems to help prevent scuffing the toe. The included laces do seem pretty frail, already looking a little scruffly after a month, and I’ve read reviews that others have had similar experiences; laces are easily replaceable, of course.

These have a composite toe, which I found quite light compared to steel toes I’ve used in the past. Combined with the lower cut, they’re overall not heavy boots, although obviously heavier than a soft-toed variant. The good news is that the toe is very roomy and never felt confining, which is something I’ve always experienced with safety toes; the box is built quite high, which is actually noticeable from the outside, giving a bit of a square, blocky look.

How about comfort? These are actually quite comfortable boots. Partly it’s because of the low cut (which makes driving particularly easy), but mainly they just feel like boots designed for humans to wear, unlike many uniform boots which seem primarily intended as ornate buttcaps for bipedal robots. They are quite rigid, with a steel shank and more arch support than I’ve ever had in a boot, and the feel of the heel and overall “stance” against the ground is very stable and comfortable. I feel better lifting in these than in my current boots, extremely stable while stair-chairing, and I could almost certainly wear these to the gym to squat, press, and deadlift without any difficulty. The collar is heavily padded, and although it took a few days before it stopped feeling noticeably stiff against my ankle (the only real break-in), after that it’s been perfect. The insoles are replaceable, too, if you have your own orthotics.

My two biggest gripes, in the end, are these:

  • The low cut. Every pair of uniform paints I’ve ever received has been (at least after a wash) laughably short, barely reaching my instep while standing and “flooding” embarrassingly whenever I bend my leg. As a result, wearing a low-rise boot like this makes the gap extremely noticeable; my pants almost don’t reach my boots even while standing. With properly-fitted pants, it wouldn’t be as bad, but I still feel that a medium-rise boot is a more professional look.
  • No zipper. I tried to adjust to this, but particularly on overnight shifts, it’s a deal-breaker; having to lace and tie these every time I pull them on, and reverse the process to get them off (even just to rest my feet for a bit) is like switching from a cotton T-shirt to a corset. It’s enough to make me wonder if I could buy a center-zip panel like Haix makes and lace it into the front, but I doubt it would fit.

Final Thoughts

So with all of that said and done, what are my take-away impressions of these boots?

They are generally well-thought-out work boots, very appropriate for their primary market (for instance, warehouse personnel, contractors, or repairmen), and with an overall pretty good quality. They are obviously not specifically aimed at the EMS/fire/police market, but there are not too many gaps (targeted “EMS boots” are usually bizarrely overbuilt, anyway), and the main difference seems to be one of feel. My quibbles with them are enough that they won’t be replacing my existing boots, but I will wear them occasionally, and in fact they make decent-looking off-duty shoes (my girlfriend approves). Moreover, I know many field staff who don’t mind, or even prefer, low-cut and zipperless uniform boots, and for them I do recommend the product. The value is good, and if you can find some sort of discount (and they seem to be falling from trees), all the better.

I’d love to hear from anybody else who’s tried these, or better yet, one of the other Shoes for Crews models; I’d suspect that many of them are pretty similar in the overall feel, but there may be some important distinctions.

Best of all, SfC has provided me with a coupon code for one more free pair of any of their products to give away to one of you lucky folks. EMS Basics isn’t exactly The Price Is Right, and we don’t do a lot of contests, but here’s what I’d like to do: if you’re interested in a free pair of boots, post to the comments below describing:

  1. What boots you currently wear, and what you like/dislike about them
  2. What features are important to you in a pair of uniform boots
I’ll pick a random winner from those who respond.

Tiny Monsters

Hand hygiene.

Wait, come back!

It’s not very exciting, which is one reason we don’t seem very impressed by it in EMS. Also, I have a theory that most prehospital providers (probably most people in general, with the possible exception of those who have taken a microbiology course and seen gross things) don’t really, on a visceral level, believe in germs.

Whatever the reason, we really drop the ball on this one. Walk into your nearest Mega-Lifegiving Medical Center, where the best and brightest are using the latest and greatest methods to save lives every day, and look at the hand sanitizer mounted to every wall. Look at the giant signs reminding everyone to clean their hands, cover their nose with their elbow, and lock themselves into an airtight bubble if they think they’ve got the flu. Watch nurses exit patient rooms wearing full-body gowns, eyeshields, respirators, and gloves. Then watch the ambulance crew wander in wearing week-old uniforms, touch everything, scoop up the patient like a sack of potatoes, heave him onto a suspiciously gray and drippy stretcher, and do just about everything but lick the doorknobs.

Admittedly, one difference between us is that the hospital makes its money in part based on metrics that include the number of nosocomial (healthcare-acquired) infections it sees. But maybe that’s a good thing. If our billing started depending on how many patients we infected, suddenly we might start believing in germs. Just a prediction.

Why should we care about universal precautions? For one thing, to stay alive. Not long ago I transferred a nurse between facilities. She was being admitted to a medical floor for a massive MRSA-colonized abscess on her cheek; it had been surgically incised and drained, and she was now beginning a course of antibiotics and further care. The cause? She’d idly scratched her face one day at work.

For some reason, I find this argument unconvincing to many of us EMTs and medics. I suspect that, as usual, we consider ourselves immortal. Whatever the case, if you find it compelling, go with it, but otherwise, try its mirror image: precautions keep your patients alive.

You may be a romping, stomping, deathless badass. You’re 18, you take your vitamins, and you’ve never been sick in your life. Staph tells stories about you to scare its children. But your patient is elderly, takes immuno-suppressant drugs, and has leukemia coming out of his ears. How’s his immune system? Do you want to find out?

He’s the reason that the hospitals have become so paranoid about cross-contamination — because this guy is right across the hall from a guy infected with Ultra-Virulent Pan-Resistant Skin Melting Brain Bleeding Disease, and it’s very, very easy for staff to touch one of them, then touch the other. Or touch the doorknob, which someone else touches, who then touches… etc. This is why hospitals are such dangerous places for sick people.

That’s why I’m not particularly paranoid about germs in my everyday life, but I try to bring a little paranoia to work with me. Because our patients may pass through many medical hands, but most of those hands are now climbing aboard the sanitation train. Yet the system is only as good as the weakest link, and especially when it comes to interfacility transfers, EMS may very well be that link. We wear the same uniform from patient to patient (if not from day to day), we don’t always replace linen or clean the stretcher, and equipment — never mind the ambulance itself — gets decontaminated far less often than after every call.

And perhaps, due to the nature of our work, some of this is necessary. We work in a more difficult and less controlled environment than the ICU, and maybe we can’t maintain exactly the same standards. (This argument is less convincing when it comes to non-emergent, routine transfer work, though — particularly when a patient’s infectious status is already known.) However, there are some things we can do that are easy, routine, and when introduced into our habits, create essentially no added work.

Number one is hand hygiene.

Whenever possible, I wash my hands after every call. It’s no burden. If I’ve delivered a patient to a hospital or other facility, I simply find the restroom (which I probably want anyway, because my bladder is the size of a grape) and wash. Many times a sink may even be available in the patient’s room.

The proliferation of waterless hand sanitizers, usually alcohol-based foams or gels, has given us an alternative to this. When there aren’t any sinks, it’s the only way. But I don’t like ’em. They leave a residue that’s palpable, and which smells — and if you’re planning on eating anything, tastes — foul. They are also, in many cases, literally less effective. Although alcohol and similar agents kill most microorganisms, they don’t kill all of them (Clostridium difficile and the norovirus being notable exceptions), and like all contact sanitizers, they disinfect but do not clean. Any gross dirt, grease, or other contaminants on your hands (and this includes particles that are “macro”-sized but still too small to see) can cover or encase microbes, preventing antiseptics from reaching them. Unlike contact sanitizers, washing with soap and water is an essentially mechanical process: you are physically rinsing contaminants away from your skin and down the drain. (All that the soap does is “lubricate” hydrophobic particles to make them easier to rinse off.) Some soaps now are “antibacterial,” meaning they contain a germ-killing substance as well, but it’s not clear that these do any better of a job for routine purposes, and they may contribute to drug resistant strains. (They do, however, leave a microstatic coating on your hands afterwards, which helps to keep things clean a little longer.) Either way, most soap in healthcare facilities does contain an antimicrobial agent. In any case, I use the waterless sanitizers only when soap and water aren’t available.

Proper handwashing isn’t hard, but since it requires mechanically washing each portion of skin, it helps to have a system or you can easily miss spots. If you’re scrubbing in for surgery or a similar sterile procedure, you’ll need a much more stringent method than I use — but you’re not going to practice that ten times a day. So I use an approach that hits essentially the whole hand with as few steps as possible. Once you have the basic pieces in place, you can then do it fast for a routine wash, or spend much longer on each surface if you know that your hands are funky.

Here’s how I like to wash. It may seem elaborate or awkward at first, but with a little practice it’ll become second nature.

The same method can be used with waterless sanitizer. In the past, frequent washing tended to dry out your skin and lead to cracks (great windows for infection), but nowadays most soap in the hospitals contains moisturizer to prevent this.

A few points to remember:

  1. Washing is a mechanical process! Mere contact with soap doesn’t clean anything. If you didn’t rub an area of skin at least briefly, you didn’t clean it.
  2. Use warm water. Cold is a less effective solvent, and hot abuses your hands.
  3. If you’re also using the bathroom, consider washing before and after to avoid contaminating your… important areas.
  4. Drying with a towel is part of washing: it helps physically clean the hands, and wet hands are microbe-magnets.
  5. Although I don’t religiously practice the turn-off-the-water-with-the-towel technique, if you know that your hands were grossly contaminated, it’s a good idea; remember that whatever was on your hands before you washed is probably now on the knob.
  6. In an ideal world, we probably wouldn’t wear watches. In the real world, just try to be aware that it’s a great shelter for contaminants, and find a way to clean it (watch and band) regularly.