Time for doctors to unstrap their watches?

UK hospital patients could face danger from an unlikely source this year: Doctors are unable to do their jobs properly thanks to local wristwatch bans.

A guideline developed by the country’s Health Department last year states that it is a “bad practice” to wear a wristwatch, jewelry or false nails, as they can harbor bacteria1. Considering that it seems to have little merit that doctors have the last two, some experienced doctors suggest that the lack of a wristwatch could hurt.

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James Henderson and Sarah McCracken, two UK doctors, tested 20 doctors and nurses on their ability to assess heart and breathing rates without the use of a watch’s second hand. All 20 took more than a minute to make estimates, and only one of the participants provided reasonably accurate answers. All would fail a university practical test on these assessments, the doctors say in a letter published in the BMJ2.

Of course, doctors would have access to watches other than wristwatches. But doctors point out that for activities that involve viewing both a second hand and another object simultaneously, such as looking at drops, it is impractical to have pocket watches that must be held up or dependent on wall clocks.

And, they add, there is no evidence that wearing a watch is harmful to patients.

British doctors are already upset about failed government reforms in the way young doctors are trained, resulting in hundreds of qualified doctors not receiving internships. Other inconveniences would add to this disturbance.

“It could mean that patients who are potentially very ill are not being recognized as very ill,” Henderson says of the worst case scenario. He works in Norwich and admits in the conflicting interests section of his newspaper that he “likes to wear a wristwatch.”

Watch out
The guideline states that watches and jewelry “can harbor microorganisms and can reduce compliance with hand hygiene.” “A dress code nude below the elbows for doctors helps support effective hand washing and therefore reduces the risk of patients contracting infections,” says a spokesperson for the UK Department of Health. To support the bacterial claim, the guide cites the US guidelines for hand hygiene in healthcare settings3.

However, this document only mentions clocks in relation to surgical manual antisepsis. Her references include a document that concludes that hand disinfection is difficult if watches are not removed, but this document is specific to dentistry4.

Although the Health Department guidelines are officially described as “an evidence base for local policy development,” Henderson says they are viewed as dictated. It has already been implemented in some areas of the UK.

Joanna Thorne, Foundation Physician of the Year in Eastbourne, says: “I have to wear a wristwatch on my belt. Seeing this is a real pain.”

There is another problem with taking off your wristwatch, as Henderson discovered: “I was late and my boss yelled at me.”

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