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Let’s make handwashing habits a social norm by spreading the word not the germs

October 14, 2016

By Will Sawyer, MD

Did you know that your hands can be deadly? Yes, your hands. They carry many germs that can cause morbidity and even mortality. This is why handwashing habits serve as such a critical behavior for all to adopt early in life. If we make improved handwashing practice a social norm and intentionally teach it earlier in life, it has the potential to reduce the frequency of infections, decrease the risk caused by a number of chronic diseases, and give children a chance to live productive and meaningful lives.

Handwashing promotion is applicable to all countries and all communities, from the most highly developed to the least. In addition to morbidity and mortality, infections lead to absenteeism from work and school, thus affecting one’s productivity and ability to learn.

As a doctor and medical professional for over 30 years, I have seen the enormous value in educating patients on the role hands play in the spread of respiratory and diarrheal infections. While it seems like common sense, it’s surprising how many people do not practice this simple, healthy behavior. Through my experience of working with young children, I have seen the need for this age group to become lifelong practitioners of handwashing for their personal health and growth.

In the Science of Habit, Dr David Neal discusses the two critical components around habit: creating a good habit and sustaining the habit. However, sustaining habits is far more difficult to achieve. This is precisely why I created the Henry the Hand Foundation and its trademarked behavior change agent, Henry the Hand Champion Handwasher. This logo can act as a visual cue to encourage an automatic response to handwash at certain junctures, such as before eating and after coming in contact with fecal matter. This learned “situational awareness” becomes an innate response that facilitates individuals to not only wash their hands, but sustain the habit as well.

The Henry the Hand Foundation works with Kenya-based NGO, Kenya Connect, to help create and promote norms around handwashing with soap at schools in their local community by using the behavior change tools that the foundation offers, such as posters, stickers, songs, and an on-site mural. These tools have helped those schools to easily promote handwashing curriculum in schools. Watch a brief video for more ideas and examples of how Henry the Hand Foundation promotes handwashing behavior change.

Visit the foundation’s website to learn how you can share the Foundation’s innovative hand hygiene behavior change program to create handwashing as a social norm, and to spread the word not the germs.   

Dr. Will Sawyer is a certified family medicine practitioner whose practice, the Sharonville Family Medicine, is based in Sharonville, Ohio. Dr. Sawyer received his medical degree in 1982 from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and was certified by the American Board of Family Physicians in 1985. You can contact Dr. Will Sawyer at Henry the Hand Foundation is a registered non-profit (501c3) dedicated to improving everyone’s health and wellness by raising awareness about the role hands play in the spread of infections.

Category: Community Forum

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