Words carry power – How we talk about hand hygiene matters


How we talk about hand hygiene matters? On this issue is working Claire Kilpatrick (leading the social marketing behaviour change campaign SAVE LIVES: Clean Your Hands for WHO). We asked her about the importance of plain and uniform language and about a recently published study in this context.

Claire, what was the motivation for you to carry out the study “How we talk about hand hygiene matters – an exploration of hand hygiene etymology”? I thought that plain and uniform language is already “an issue” in the hospitals. But obviously not!

Numerous studies have focused on health care workers’ perceptions of hand hygiene but few have addressed the etymology of hand hygiene and its influence. Words carry power, yet the recipient’s perceptions of the words commonly used in a hand hygiene improvement context have been largely overlooked with a small number of exceptions.

What are the words on which you were concentrating in this study?

The words tested were alcohol based handrub, compliance, monitoring, moment and system. During the exercises 240 words representing alcohol based handrub were collected, 510 representing compliance, 402 representing monitoring, 480 representing moment and 200 representing system.

How the exercises were carried out?

The words captured during the exercises, were categorized as “warm” and “cold”. Compliance in particular evoked negative feelings, with ‘cold words’ being described as the instant “feeling” on hearing this word in the majority of respondents. The word moment evoked the most positive feelings (‘warm words’) including ‘now’, ‘special’ and ‘crucial’.

What is the conclusion of this study?

This novel exercise has potential to stimulate the IPC (and academic) community to revisit the words it uses within policies/guidelines and day-to-day communications in their quest to bring about the socially desired change (hand hygiene at the right time) as a part of a multimodal strategy.



About Author

Carola Timmel is journalist for print and radio and professional speaker. Her focus lies on the topic Medicine & Health.

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