MORE than three-in-10 hospital doctors are not washing their hands between patients, leaving the people they are trying to cure at risk of potentially life-threatening infections.
The poor handwashing habits of consultants and junior doctors have emerged in the latest audit carried out by the Health Service Executive (HSE) to discover how well hospital staff are following this key infection-control rule.
It is aimed at protecting patients from potentially lethal superbugs such as MRSA, and involves washing with soap and water or sanitising with a hand rub.
Just 69pc of doctors washed their hands while being observed last July, a marginal improvement on their 61pc compliance rate in 2011.
Nurses and midwives had the best record at 86.2pc, followed by staff such as physiotherapists and radiologists – 84.3pc were washing their hands.
But other healthcare staff such as porters, catering and cleaners have the second worst rate at 79.8pc, a slight fall since the last audit.
The hospital staff are aware the audit is under way and that
they are being observed. The report acknowledges that this awareness can change behaviour.
The overall compliance by all staff has improved and is at 81.6pc compared with 79.6pc in the last audit. But it still falls short of the 85pc target.
Responding to the findings, Dr Trevor Duffy, consultant leader in the Irish Medical Organisation, said the "sheer volume" of patients that consultants had to see each day could impact on quality control.
"If you compare it to Switzerland where they have good handwashing rates, you will see they only see around 50pc of the patients we see," he said.
Dr Duffy said doctors should always be mindful of the need to wash their hands to protect patients.
Hospitals that fared worst were Wexford General (70.3pc) and St Luke's, Kilkenny (71.4pc).
Others with poor scores included Roscommon county hospital (73.3pc).
Staff in the Mater Private had the highest score of 94.8pc. Cappagh Orthopaedic Hospital in Dublin had a score of 91pc, followed by Mercy Hospital in Cork (90pc).
The staff were observed during five crucial points including before touching a patient, doing a procedure in sterile conditions and following exposure to body fluid.
They should also wash their hands after touching a patient or touching patient surroundings.
Staff were seen as most diligent after being exposed to body fluid or touching a patient.
But they were less likely to follow the rules before touching a patient.
The use of hand sanitiser was the most popular method of cleaning by staff and the report said this was consistent with international practice.
The most recent figures show two patients died from the deadly superbug C difficile last year. The number of reported new cases of the bug, which spreads very easily, rose to 1,848 last year, up from 1,693 in 2010.
The number of patients who suffered bloodstream MRSA infections in hospitals fell from 592 in 2006 to 263 in 2011.
Senior hospital managers need to ensure that hand washing is a priority and not allow it become a victim of funding cuts,the report added.