Doctor, Did You Wash Your Hands?

Despite national campaigns encouraging patients to take an active role in improving hospital safety, many patients aren’t comfortable asking doctors challenging questions about their care.

British researchers gave surveys to about 80 surgical patients asking them how they would feel about asking doctors or nurses various questions. The questions ranged from simple factual questions like, “How long will I be in the hospital?” to more challenging questions such as, “Have you washed your hands?” The patients were asked to rate their level of willingness to ask the questions on a scale of 1 to 4, with 4 indicating they would be very willing to pose the question to their doctor or nurse.

Basic questions to doctors about length of hospital stay, time off work and details about the procedure were easy for patients to ask and received high marks, scoring on average 3.4 points, according to the report, which appeared in the journal Quality & Safety in Health Care.

But questions aimed at improving patient safety and reducing medical errors were far more difficult for patients to ask, receiving an average score of just 2.4 points. Questions that received low marks included:

“Who are you, and what is your job?”

“I don’t think that is the medication I am on. Can you check please?”

“Have you washed your hands?”

“How many times have you done this operation?”

Although patients were slightly more willing to ask challenging questions of nurses, scores remained low. However, the survey suggested that if a doctor instructs a surgical patient to be sure and ask about safety issues like hand washing and medication, patients found it far easier to ask challenging questions. Women also were more likely to ask challenging questions than men, the study showed.

The study authors said the findings suggest patients are worried about insulting their doctors by asking safety-oriented questions. For patient safety programs to be effective, doctors and nurses need to communicate to patients that challenging questions are a good thing.

“Patients need to feel they can ask questions that may be perceived as challenging without causing offense to those involved in their health care treatment,” the study authors wrote.