Physicians' Ties May Be Sickness Culprit

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Is it possible that a doctor's necktie is the source for bacteria and germs that could infect their patients? A report by the British Medical Association says so — and the panel is calling on doctors to lose their neckties. Michele Norris talks with Dr. Vivienne Nathanson, the head of science and ethics at the British Medical Association.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

The British Medical Association is telling doctors in the UK to ditch their neckties, and here is why. Though the London air of crisp professionalism, neckties are also prime nesting ground for bacteria, even drug resistant super bugs that can be passed on to patients. One reason, they don't make it to the cleaners very often.

VIVIENNE NATHANSON: They don't look dirty, but they're handled a lot. And if a hand has any contaminant on that will go onto the tie, and then of course, the tie, acting a repository, will re-infect a newly washed hand. And that's why we say, you know, dump them completely. Because that actually prevents that possibility.

NORRIS: That's Dr. Vivienne Nathanson, head of science and ethics at the British Medical Association. She says ties may not be the most likely source of infection, but the danger is there.

NATHANSON: In the worst case scenario, if you've got some small amount of bugs on clothing, whether it's on the cuffs or pockets of a dirty white coat, or on a tie, you handle it and then touch a break in the patient's skin, so perhaps a site around an injection or where an IV line is cited or near a wound, then potentially a relatively small amount of cross infection can cause potentially a catastrophic illness.

NORRIS: What have your male colleagues had to say about this?

NATHANSON: Well, a lot of them rather like their ties. So we're trying to encourage them to wear them to the office, but not actually when they're actually clinically caring for patients. And if they do insist on wearing them, then change them regularly, get them dry-cleaned on a very regular basis.

NORRIS: So, Dr. Nathanson, let's say you're a patient, and the doctor walks in the room and he's got a tie on, what do you do?

NATHANSON: Well, the first thing I would do is make sure that the washed his hands and doesn't touch his tie after washing his hands before he examines me, and particularly if I have an open wound of any sort.

NORRIS: So, should patients tell their physicians to get rid of the tie if they've got one on?

NATHANSON: Absolutely. Why not? I mean, I think that it is important here to recognize that patients and doctors are partners in this. Neither of us can actually get rid of hospital acquired infections on our own. We have to work together.

NORRIS: Is it possible to create a necktie that would have some sort of Scotch guard or decontaminant within the tie?

NATHANSON: I'm sure this is a new market opportunity for a manufacturer out there.

NORRIS: Rest assured, someone is listening right now and thinking of an antibacterial tie that they might be able to market.

NATHANSON: Absolutely. And, of course, we mustn't underestimate the fact that for men, very often the tie is their sort of statement of individuality. And we don't want to stop people from expressing individuality, nor do we want that individuality to put anyone at risk.

NORRIS: Well, a study from New Zealand published in December suggested that patients for their part don't mind a doctor without a tie.

NATHANSON: Interestingly, patients do expect in hospitals, doctors to be wearing white coats, and they see that as quite an important function to help them to recognize who is a doctor and who isn't. They're not particularly interested in whether a doctor wears a tie or not.

NORRIS: That's Dr. Vivienne Nathanson, at the British Medical Association.

But there is a line between the understated and the unprofessional. According to that study at Christ Church School of Medicine and Health Sciences, while patients like an opened collar, they weren't too keen on other less traditional looks such as dyed hair or facial piercings.

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