DOCTORS are the worst culprits for failing to wash their hands between patients to reduce the risk of passing on a potentially life-threatening infection, a leading specialist has admitted.
Dr Jack Lambert, a consultant in infectious diseases in the Mater Hospital, was commenting amid growing concern over yet another set of inspection reports, which found medical staff were flouting the key safety measure.
Patients in St James's Hospital – the largest in the country – are at serious risk because of a failure by staff to wash their hands.
The unannounced inspection of St James's Hospital in Dublin last month revealed staff flouted infection-control rules on more than half the occasions when they should have washed their hands.
It is the second "centre of excellence" caring for some of the sickest patients in the country to be criticised over failure to wash hands between patients and follows the recent damning report on Beaumont Hospital.
"The degree of non-compliance with standard precautions for infection prevention and control regarding hand hygiene poses a risk to patients," said the report by the Health Information and Quality Authority.
Asked to comment on the findings, Dr Lambert told the Irish Independent they revealed ongoing deficiencies and said there was little "gatekeeping" at hospital level to ensure staff attended training on infection control, which should be mandatory.
During the St James's visit, the inspectors who investigated the units dealing with plastic surgery and the emergency department found:
* The treatment room had a hand basin that was obstructed by a bin and three leg rests.
* The water outlet in the sink was blocked and two used surgical instruments were left on windowsill.
* Another sink in a corridor was stained and had grit.
Dr Brian O'Connell, one of the hospital's microbiologists, said "business and lack of awareness" were to blame and he had no problem imposing sanctions on persistent offenders. But a spokesman for the hospital later said the priority for now was changing habits, and not sanctions.
A separate inspection of the Eye and Ear Hospital in Dublin a few days later found staff just complied with hand washing on 11 of the 17 occasions under observation.
A third hospital, St Columcille's in Loughlinstown in Dublin, had contract staff doing work on fire safety in St Anne's ward, who were not aware of hand-hygiene safety precautions even though they were in patient areas during the day.
Staff just washed their hands on 17 of the 24 occasions they should have done so.
A further inspection of Kerry General Hospital in Tralee found staff ignored the need to wash their hands on 11 occasions during the visit.
In Letterkenny Hospital, staff who should have washed their hands on 40 occasions were only observed doing it on 23 occasions.
Health Minister James Reilly said he was sending the reports to the Medical Council and An Bord Altranais. The chief medical officer is to meet with HSE chief Tony O'Brien.
The Medical Council said it would consider any correspondence but did not say if it could act given that no doctor was named.