Doctors could well be lagging behind nurses in maintaining their hand hygiene, Australian research shows.
Preventing spread of infection depends on hand washing, but according to the new findings, doctors are not washing their hands enough in hospitals.
The study comes from the University of New South Wales and the New South Wales Clinical Excellence Commission. It found nurses had the best handwashing practices, and they were also more willing to improve.
Doctors would be shocked by the results, said Associate Professor Mary-Louise McLaws who is director of Public Health Programs at University of NSW.
"No doctor thinks 'I'm going to work today to infect my patients'", Dr McLaws said.
"Doctors are going to be horrified when they see these data."
A Clean Hands Save Lives campaign was introduced to all of NSW's public hospitals in early 2006, and its success in changing staff behaviour was monitored over the following year.
All staff were urged to use an alcohol-based solution to wash their hands both before and after patient contact, as posters were erected and themed T-shirts also worn to promote the campaign.
Dr McLaws said it resulted in an overall improvement in hand hygiene but the gains were not uniform and doctors were the poorest performers.
The proportion of nurses who cleaned their hands after patient interaction rose from 54.5 per cent before the campaign, to just over 65 per cent at the end.
Doctors' figures rose from 29.6 per cent to just under 39 per cent.
They were even outranked by allied health workers, as their hand hygiene rates went from 40 to 48 per cent.
"This hand hygiene rate among doctors and other allied health workers is a wake up call," Dr McLaws said.
"Previous studies we've done have shown that nurses look to doctors for their hand hygiene compliance behaviour, yet it is doctors who are letting the side down.
"We need to empower nurses to be strong advocates for their patients and to guide and remind doctors who enter their wards to cleanse their hands."
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has identified hand hygiene as a key element in reducing rates of hospital acquired infections, which affect as many as 200,000 Australians each year or one in 10 hospital admissions.
The research is published in the Medical Journal of Australia.