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Can Doctors Be Sued for Not Washing Hands?

By Jeffrey Yano, Esq. | Last updated on

You'd think this wouldn't be a thing. Kids learn to wash their hands from a young age. Employees can be required to wash their hands after using the restroom. And, in general, most people are pretty good about it. Despite this, doctors, who really should know best here, are infamously among the worst hand washers out there.

So if you're a patient, can you sue?

Wash Your Hands, Doctor

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that approximately 100,000 hospital patients die each year from hospital-acquired infections. That's a lot, and considering the controlled environment of hospitals, a number that should be downwardly adjusted in a big way.

A big contributor here is the infamous handwashing problem in the medical field. Washing hands is an easy way for doctors, nurses, and hospital staff to avoid spreading infection by scrubbing off bacteria.

Despite the proven benefits of washing hands and doctors' daily interaction with sick patients, it remains a source of trouble for patients. It's a common enough problem to garner attention from health authorities, hospitals, and lawyers.

Doctor Handwashing Lawsuits?

By law, doctors owe their patients a duty of care. It's similar to the legal duty a lawyer owes a client and a fiduciary owes a principal. When that duty is breached, and a patient is injured, there's a legal right permitting a patient to sue for medical malpractice.

Medical malpractice lawsuits also require a causal connection between a doctor's failure to observe her duty of care and a patient's injury. The doctor's mistake must harm the patient, as it were.

That's what the law says. What about the reality? Unlike leaving surgical sponges inside patients, attributing a patient's infection to a handwashing failure is difficult. It lacks that "aha!" moment. On the other hand, it might be possible to sue the hospital for failing to train staff or failing to maintain safe conditions.

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