Icky Hospital Problem: Getting Staff to Wash Hands

Many are trying high-tech monitoring, or even prizes as incentives

By Evann Gastaldo,  Newser Staff

Posted May 29, 2013 2:04 PM CDT

(Newser) – And the award for Heebie-Jeebiest Story of the Day goes to this gem from the New York Times, headlined: "Hospitals Struggle to Get Workers to Wash Their Hands." Turns out that, left to their own devices, hospital workers don't wash their hands all that often while interacting with patients. As little as 30% of the time, studies have shown. So, faced with the rise of drug-resistant superbugs; billions of dollars in costs (not to mention tens of thousands of deaths) arising from hospital-acquired infections; and new federal rules that will cost them Medicare money when patients contract preventable infections, hospitals are trying some new approaches.

  • On Long Island, motion sensors go off when anyone enters an intensive care room, and a video camera transmits images—to India—so monitors can make sure the doctors and nurses in the room wash their hands.
  • Some hospitals use RFID chips, high-tech electronic badges, or undercover observers to track hand-washing. At one hospital, staff members wear buttons encouraging patients' families to "Ask me if I've washed my hands."
  • Still others are going the positive reinforcement route, utilizing "hand-washing coaches" or offering prizes from free pizza and coffee coupons to cash bonuses.
"This is not a quick fix; this is a war," says one doctor at the Long Island hospital. Why is it so difficult? Studies have found explanations that vary from complaints about dry skin to plain old tedium or even a resistance to authority, and some theorize nurses and doctors just have too much pressure and too many other things to remember, particularly in emergency situations.

You'd be grossed out by how often this does not happen.
You'd be grossed out by how often this does not happen.   (Shutterstock)
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There was one system where the monitoring was waist high, and they learned to crawl under that. Or there are people who will swipe their badges and turn on the water, but not wash their hands. - Dr. Elaine Larson on the lengths some hospital staffers go to avoid hand-washing

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