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Harmful bacteria could lurk in doctors', nurses' uniforms, study says

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August 31, 2011|By Jeannine Stein, Los Angeles Times / For the Booster Shots blog
  • That white coat might seem clean, but it could be harboring dangerous bacteria.
That white coat might seem clean, but it could be harboring dangerous bacteria. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles…)

Think your doctor's white coat is as clean as a whistle? It might not be. A study finds that dangerous germs could be lurking on nurses' and doctors' uniforms.

Researchers from Shaare Zedek Medical Centerin Jerusalem cultured three spots on the uniforms of 75 nurses and 60 physicians working in a 550-bed hospital. Potential pathogens (also known as infectious agents, or germs) were found on 63% of the uniforms, and antibiotic resistant bacteria were found on samples from 14% of nurses' uniforms and 6% of doctor's uniforms. Eight of those cultures grew methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, better known as MRSA.

No substantial differences were found between doctor and nurse uniforms or between staff from medical and surgical departments. However, the contamination rate with antibiotic-resistant pathogens was higher in clothes that were changed every two days versus every day. The study is published in the September issue of the American Journal of Infection Control.

Not washing hands frequently enough could contribute to the pervasiveness of bacteria, the authors wrote, adding that bacteria could be transmitted to patients by other means, not just through clothing. They also noted that although most doctors and nurses in the study thought of their uniforms as fairly clean, that wasn't always the case.

"It is important to put these study results into perspective," said Russell Olmsted, president of the Assn. for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, in a news release. "Any clothing that is worn by humans will become contaminated with microorganisms. The cornerstone of infection prevention remains the use of hand hygiene to prevent the movement of microbes from these surfaces to patients."

The authors noted that more hand washing could help control uniform bacteria counts, as well as wearing a clean uniform every day, adequate laundering, using plastic aprons when necessary and even discarding white coats. The study authors also mentioned that short-sleeve coats might also provide extra protection, although a 2011 study in the Journal of Hospital Medicine found no significant differences in bacteria contamination between short-sleeve and long-sleeve coats worn by 100 physicians.

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