Ignaz Semmelweis (1818-1865), a young Hungarian-born physician, working in Vienna, Austria, implemented an unpopular policy which saved many lives. The year was 1847. He ordered all doctors and medical students working in the maternity ward of Vienna General Hospital, to wash their hands in a chlorinated-lime wash after autopsies and before treating patients. The rate of death in the ward fell from about 10% to about 1%. “Over the next twelve months, Semmelweis’s intervention saved the lives of 300 mothers and 250 babies – and that was just a single maternity ward in a single hospital” (Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, Super Freakonomics, p. 138).
In spite of the work of Semmelweis and others, modern hospitals still have a problem with diseases being spread by unclean hands. Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner write, “A raft of recent studies have shown that hospital personnel wash or disinfect their hands in fewer than half the instances they should. And doctors are the worst offenders, more lax than either nurses or aids… The best medicine for stopping infections? Getting doctors to wash their hands more frequently… Cedar Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles found it needed improvement, with hand hygiene rate of just 65%… During a five-month study in the intensive care unit of an Australian children’s hospital, doctors were asked to track their own hand-washing frequency. Their self-report rate? Seventy-three percent… unbeknownst to these doctors, however, their nurses were spying on them, and recorded the docs’ actual hand-hygiene rate: a paltry 9 percent” (Levitt and Dubner, Super Freakonomics, pp. 204-205). The writers went on to describe how Cedar-Sinai improved their compliance to near 100%.
Comparison: (1) The doctors, no doubt, want to help. However, those who work with unclean hands can actually spread illness through contact. (2) The Christian, no doubt, wants to help. He teaches another. However, if he does so with unclean hands, he can spread illness. I have known those who teach Jesus and the need for faith, repentance, and baptism – but also spread spiritual illness through example (e.g. worldliness, inconsistent attendance, meager giving, lethargy, bad attitudes about others). Jesus spoke of certain Israelites saying, “Woe to you, scribes, and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much the son of hell as yourselves” (Matthew 23:15). Teaching is an important and serious matter. Let’s be careful not to spread illness. Let us cleanse our hands. “Cleanse your hands you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:8).