Gender Germ Warfare

sink.jpgThe long-simmering gender wars have escalated to a whole new level—germ warfare. Qualified inspectors searched high-value targets and reported shocking results in the health news —one third of men are leaving bathrooms without washing their hands, a number that’s actually getting worse. One hot-spot that was searched was the Atlanta Stadium bathrooms, where only 57% of men, but 95% of women washed their hands after going to the bathroom. This is an extreme difference.


Do we believe the 95% number? Think about that for a moment—almost nothing in our society merits a 95% compliance rate. Well, the inspectors gave detailed information on data collection and adherence criteria. However, more reliably, as a Southern woman physician, I can report that any woman from the South can verify the 95% number to be accurate. I have personally heard grandmothers give detailed advice on prior-to-use toilet wrapping whose intricate results would merit a gallery showing in New York. Furthermore, the Southern women’s stall experience is a wealth of auditory germ-containment information. The gymnastics involved in using a toilet while remaining surgically sterile are impressive. I’ve heard the soft thuds against metal walls as frail elderly women with helmet-hair momentarily lose their balance while performing the necessary tasks perched on one stiletto heel. I can’t imagine where the other foot could be, and, frankly, I’d rather not know.

Almost every Southern woman, at some point, has heard mothers, accompanying small children into stalls, shriek at ear-splitting decibels, “God, no, tell me you didn’t touch that!” followed by crashes and booms as the door is flung open for an emergency exit while holding the child like a football under one arm, rushing to the sink with the offending toddler hand outstretched, and dousing it immediately in gallons of soap and water. All the witnesses in the vicinity (women) give a sigh of relief. No one considers calling Child Protective Services.

I would guess the 95% number, if anything, to be an underestimate.

We can, therefore, deduce that women are adhering to standard germ containment guidelines. Men are not. To put it bluntly, health inspectors have discovered men exiting toilets with their hands full of flagrant, obvious WMDs (Weapons of Mass Defecation).

Why was this information downplayed in the news? Why did it not merit the kind of international incident headlines that it so obviously deserved? These findings were passed off in most news outlets as a quirky feature of gender differences, but I, as a medical expert, know better. What was glossed over, to avoid mass hysteria and panic, was the post-bathroom scenario of what can happen when WMDs are let loose on an unsuspecting public.

Warning: The following contains graphic images, unsuitable for small children, those with a queasy stomach, and most (95%) Southern women.  Before you proceed, be warned, some things cannot be erased once they enter your mind.

Every man who leaves the bathroom, who holds his sweetie’s hand, who buys some fries for the family, who puts his hand on the armrest next to yours, has handed you the collective stool of all the men in the Atlanta Stadium bathroom.

You don’t believe me, do you? You are thinking, like the line from a country-western song–not my man. He’s true. He’s faithful. He washes. Well, even if he is the two-thirds who do wash, it doesn’t matter. Why? Well, he had to touch the door to leave, didn’t he? He shakes hands with his buddies, doesn’t he?

See, the problem with germs is that you can’t make a little island for yourself. We’re swimming is a big soup of germs every day. And the hand-washing issue is not just limited to men in the Atlanta Stadium. A study of infectious disease doctors (yikes! how much more qualified can you get than that about diseases and hand-washing?) still found that male infectious disease doctors were not nearly as likely as women infectious disease doctors to wash their hands after going to the toilet. I can feel the shudders of women across the country as the full magnitude of gender germ-warfare finally sinks in.

Should you freak every time you see your doctor shake hands with someone in the hall? Should you insist on letting your doctor only shake your elbow? What about gloves, are there germs on the outside of the gloves if the doctor handles them before putting them on? Before panic ensues, there was good news this month—the British health service decided to take a strong stand on this issue. See, not only can you get unspeakable gastrointestinal problems from not washing your hands (my favorite is Giardia—also known as the “who made that smell” disease), but you can also get things that are much worse. Particularly if you work in a hospital. There are “super-bugs,” one of which is methicillin-resistant staph or MRSA. If you get that germ, making a bad smell is the least of your worries. You could die, or, on a good day, break out in boils all over your body–for the rest of your life. Hand-washing has been shown to be dramatically effective in cutting down the transmission of MRSA. So what hard-line recommendations did the British Health Service issue for male physicians?

Are you ready? I’m not making this up: No wearing ties.

Given the recent data on handwashing and men, seems like kind of the wrong tactic, don’t you think? But no. The guidelines state that ties should not be worn because they “are not often washed, and serve no obvious purpose.” I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen a doctor enter a room and wipe his tie all over someone in quite a while. Like maybe never.

Here’s my tip. When your doctor enters the room, hold something on your lap—your book, an iPod, a Southern lady’s best purse, whatever, and then when he holds out his hand to shake yours, just nod back, keeping your hands to yourself. If he hasn’t already by the time he’s going to examine you, say, in your best Atlanta Stadium woman’s accent, “honey, could you just give those hands a little wash before we start? And put that tie away–that’s right, just tuck it right in there–that’s a dear.”

 You might need to channel your inner steel magnolia to do this, but let me tell you–it’s worth it. When it comes to healthcare, it’s important to know you’re in good hands.

Bonus: Check back in with Doc Gurley this Friday for a special presentation–10 Creative Ways To Get Your Doctor To Wash His Hands

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