Britain worries magazines in waiting rooms could spread disease

Mary Otto

About Mary Otto

Mary Otto, a Washington, D.C.-based freelancer, is AHCJ's topic leader on oral health, curating related material at healthjournalism.org. She welcomes questions and suggestions on oral health resources at mary@healthjournalism.org.

As an anxious patient, I would gladly seek the comfort of a dog-eared old copy of County Life in the dentist’s waiting room.

But the topic of dental-waiting-room-magazine safety recently caused a flurry in Britain. It got health and science writers there asking questions. It made me wonder too.

Mary Otto

Mary Otto, AHCJ’s topic leader on oral health is writing blog posts, editing tip sheets and articles and gathering resources to help our members cover oral health care.

If you have questions or suggestions for future resources on the topic, please send them to mary@healthjournalism.org.

“Magazines in the waiting room can provide a welcome distraction before having to face the dentist. But they could do more harm than good by spreading germs, claim infection experts,” wrote Daily Mail science correspondent Fiona Macrae, under the headline “Are magazines at the dentist a health risk? Publications ‘can spread germs and should be thrown out after a week’.”

Macrae’s story ran with a photo of smiling Lyme Regis dentist, 65-year-old Monica Symes, holding an offending periodical. Symes said she was warned about the magazines by a National Health Service infection control worker, and said she was cautioned that if she did not clean up, she could fail an inspection by the Care Quality Commission.

“Miss Symes, 65, who has practiced for more than 30 years, said: ‘I can’t believe the magazines would pose any risk to patients.’

“She has some dating back to 2004 but added: ‘Generally we try to keep up-to-date but plenty of old magazines are quite interesting,’” Macrae wrote.

The BBC followed with its own coverage of the flap in a story entitled “Dentist Told to Bin Magazines Due To Infection Risk.”

British dentists defended their hygiene practices. And British health officials denied the existence of hard and fast rules about waiting room magazines.

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“A spokesman said: The [primary care trust] PCT’s current advice to NHS [National Health Service] dental practice owners is that patient waiting areas should be kept clear of unnecessary clutter to facilitate regular effective cleaning,” the BBC reported.

“There is no specific requirement for practices to remove magazines within a specified time period; however, practice owners, as part of a cleaning schedule, should ensure that magazines are in good condition and free from obvious contamination. This advice will be kept under review and may be modified in the event of any future community infection outbreaks.”

Still, I decided to seek guidance closer to home.

I forwarded the BBC story to Lola Russell, a press officer at the Centers for Disease Control who is well-versed in topics including hand-washing practices and health care-associated infections.

After looking over the coverage and doing some of her own research, Russell responded with some reassuring news for those of us who cherish the distraction of waiting room magazines.

“This article can easily be misinterpreted, but the findings are that the National Health Service (NHS) does not have a policy to remove magazines from dental offices as a measure to reduce “cross-infection.” The risk of cross-infection described in the article is that environmental surfaces should be free from clutter so that effective cleaning can be done and items should not have visible contamination,” Russell wrote.

The CDC has come to the same conclusion, she said.

“CDC guidance in the Guidelines for Infection Control in Dental Health-Care Settings-2003 states that scientific evidence does not support that housekeeping surfaces or environmental surfaces pose a risk for disease transmission in dental health-care settings,” Russell offered.

“Schedules and methods for cleaning or disinfecting should be followed and vary according to the type of surface, frequency and type of contamination. Thus dental office staffs are attentive to a clean office space, including clinical and reception areas.”

Whew.

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