Over the past few years, I have focused on wiping my stethoscope down with an antiseptic wipe after I examine each patient. Initially, a problem was that I couldn't always find the wipes. We've focused on getting them available throughout the medical center so that's rarely a problem anymore.
While on the infectious disease consult service last week, I walked out of a patient's room, and wiped down my stethescope. Halfway through that action, I realized that I had not used my stethoscope on the patient. I was thrilled! The stethoscope wipedown had become a habit, since I demonstrated a key characteristic of habits: automaticity. I didn't think about it. I walked out of the patient room and my cue (crossing the threshold of the room) prompted me to automatically sanitize my stethoscope. Just like sitting down in the seat of a car prompts me to latch my seatbelt.
If you haven't read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, I highly recommend it. From the book I learned that 40% of our daily activities occur without any active decision making. These activities are habits. The trick, of course, is for us to figure out how to get hand hygiene and stethoscope wipedown established as habits. We need more psychologists working with us in infection prevention since the field is increasingly dependent on influencing the behaviors of health care workers.
Michael B. Edmond, MD, FACP, is a hospital epidemiologist in Iowa City, IA, with a focus on improving the quality and safety of health care, and sees patients in the inpatient and outpatient settings. This post originally appeared at the blog Controversies in Hospital Infection Prevention.