Dr. Ignác Semmelweis, a Hungarian medical doctor, or ‘the savior of mothers’ suggested that hand sanitizing could save new mothers from “childbed fever”. However, the reflex reaction of his colleagues was rejection. For years, he strove for the introduction of handwashing in hospitals in vain. Being ostracized from the medical community, he died in a psychiatric ward from internal bleeding. Members of the staff beat him up. He was born 200 years ago. What if he could have shared his ideas via social media or peer-reviewed research? Could the power of online communities have saved him?

The tragic fate of a doctor going against the core beliefs of the medical community

The 47-year-old professor visited the clinic of his dermatologist friend in the company of his wife and child on 31 July 1865. He felt tired after the long carriageway from Budapest to Vienna, so he gladly accepted the offered visitor’s room. However, when he woke up and wanted to find his family, nurses got in his way. They said he was in a psychiatric ward hospitalized due to insanity. He tried to resist, but six people beat him up. He was confined in a dark room in a straightjacket.

When he tried to escape through the window again, he was brutally beaten: several of his bones broke, his chest opened. He wailed for long nights. Without proper medical care, his wounds got infected – he became septic. Two weeks after he arrived, he died in dreadful agony. No one visited him, and his death certificate was forged. The official version stated that he died from sepsis originating from a previous injury.

He was not a lunatic, he was just passionate about defending his ideas – unfortunately, that conflicted with the traditional beliefs of the medical community at that time. Long years passed until the world recognized his ingenuity and his case.

Semmelweis
Source: www.cnbc.com

Finding the cure for “cadaver poison”

When Semmelweis started his career, the medical community knew nothing about Louis Pasteur’s germ theory of disease or Joseph Lister’s antiseptic techniques. As the young doctor graduated from medical school, he wanted to become an internal specialist, but he couldn’t find a residency, so he turned to obstetrics.

He was employed in the maternity ward of Allgemeine Krankenhaus teaching hospital in Vienna, where he witnessed an alarming death rate of pregnant women. He studied two maternity wards in the hospital. The staff consisted of male doctors and medical students in one of them, while female midwives in the other. And he counted the number of deaths on each ward.

Semmelweis noticed that pregnant women under the care of (male) medical students and physicians died after delivery at a rate of 13-18 percent due to “childbed fever”; while women under the care of midwives died at the much lower rate of 3 percent. When Semmelweis’ colleague died of puerperal fever after cutting his finger dissecting a corpse, Semmelweis realized the cause of illness should be in exposure to cadavers. He called it “cadaver poison”. In the case of midwives, that was not present as they did not perform any autopsies.

He instituted mandatory hand sanitizing with chloride of lime solution on the ward. As a consequence, maternal mortality rates plummeted to 2 percent. He then required the sanitizing of medical instruments, and the rate further dropped to 1 percent.

Semmelweis
Source: https://humanbehaviorblog.wordpress.com/2006/12/13/new-term-semmelweis-reflex/

Too much to process for 19th-century doctors

After his discovery, Semmelweis thought that the results are so unambiguous that it is enough to keep the rules of hand sanitizing consequently – and other clinics will follow the Viennese example. He had to be painfully disappointed.

After half a year, “childbed fever” was again rampaging in the clinic as physicians had ignored Semmelweis’ instructions. It was too outrageous and straightforward at the same time that they would be responsible for the spread of disease. The majority of physicians did not accept this option at all, it would have been too much of a burden to take. One of the most famous obstetricians, who acknowledged the theory of his Hungarian colleague realized that he is accountable for the death of his niece. He committed suicide.

Although Semmelweis repeated the positive results in a Hungarian hospital as well, physicians had the same attitude towards him as in Vienna. The majority of doctors considered him a lunatic, and they did not believe the results either.

Could social media have helped?

What if we performed a thought experiment? In the era when Semmelweis worked there was no peer-reviewed research and no social media. Moreover, he was not a very tactful man – although he convinced some progressive colleagues, he shouted his results and his opinions loud without any consideration of hurting physicians’ pride and their core vulnerabilities. No one wants to hear that they are responsible for another person’s death – especially when they intended to help.

Could he have been saved if a health influencer with hundreds of thousands of followers had tweeted out his groundbreaking finding? Could his life have turned to the right if he had been able to publish his results in a peer-reviewed journal and a science magazine reported about the breaking news? The Medical Futurist believes that the power of the scientific community, as well as the power of social media, could have saved Semmelweis. Just imagine what if hospitals not only in Austria and Hungary but in various places in Europe as well as in North America had introduced his methods. After positive results pouring in, physicians could not have stayed in denial and could not have explained the achievements by a coincidence or another factor.

Semmelweis
Source: www.resources.cactix.com

Hand hygiene is still not self-evident

No matter how much hope we have in communities, though, we have to recognize that social change is difficult and takes an incredibly long time. Two-hundred years after Semmelweis was born, hand hygiene is still not self-evident today.

The US Center for Disease Control recounted how several studies show that on average, healthcare providers clean their hands less than half of the times they should. This contributes to the spread of healthcare-associated infections that affect 1 in 25 hospital patients on any given day. Every patient is at risk of getting an infection while physicians treat them for something else. Even healthcare providers are at risk of getting an infection while they are treating patients.

However, hand hygiene is also going high-tech. With the automated hand scanner machine – whose system was named after Semmelweis – or various hand hygiene monitoring systems, it becomes only a matter of seconds to sanitize hands or check who did not follow the rules.

The Medical Futurist asks everyone to please, keep your hands clean so that Semmelweis’ death was not in vain.

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