In its 2000 report “To Err Is Human,” the Institute of Medicine estimated that anywhere from 44,000 to 98,000 Americans die each year because of hospital errors — more deaths than from either motor-vehicle crashes or breast cancer — and that one of the leading errors was the spread of bacterial infections.
While it is now well established that germs cause illness, this wasn’t always known to be true. In 1847, the Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis was working in a Viennese maternity hospital with two separate clinics. In one clinic, babies were delivered by physicians; in the other, by midwives. The mortality rate in the doctors’ clinic was nearly triple the rate in the midwives’ clinic. Why the huge discrepancy? The doctors, it turned out, often came to deliveries straight from the autopsy ward, promptly infecting mother and child with whatever germs their most recent cadaver happened to carry. Once Semmelweis had these doctors wash their hands with an antiseptic solution, the mortality rate plummeted.
But Semmelweis’s mandate, as crucial and obvious as it now seems, has proved devilishly hard to enforce. A multitude of medical studies have shown that hospital personnel wash or disinfect their hands in fewer than half the instances they should. And doctors are the worst offenders, more lax than either nurses or aides.
These results were delivered to the hospital’s leadership by Rekha Murthy, the hospital’s epidemiologist, during a meeting of the Chief of Staff Advisory Committee. The committee’s roughly 20 members, mostly top doctors, were openly discouraged by Murthy’s report. Then, after they finished their lunch, Murthy handed each of them an agar plate — a sterile petri dish loaded with a spongy layer of agar. “I would love to culture your hand,” she told them.
They pressed their palms into the plates, and Murthy sent them to the lab to be cultured and photographed. The resulting images, Silka says, “were disgusting and striking, with gobs of colonies of bacteria.”