Hospitals Test Hand-Washing Detectors

Researchers at the University of Florida have developed a system that could save thousands of lives every year just by insuring that health care workers pay more attention to washing their hands. The system will monitor every time every nurse or doctor or technician washes his or her hands.

"This isn't big brother," said Richard J. Melker, a professor of anesthesiology who developed the system with several colleagues. But it will make it possible for everybody in the hospital, including patients, to know if the person who is about to lift their frock has clean hands.

The technology, called HyGreen, is surprisingly simple and has been tested in the intensive care unit of the university's hospital for several months. A number of hospitals have lined up to purchase the system, Melker said in a telephone interview. It is being manufactured by Xhale Inc., a university spinoff.

The cornerstone of the technology is a sensor that will "sniff" the soap and waterless cleaners used by the staff, and literally give the green light for the care giver to approach the patient. The technology addresses a basic problem that has bedeviled just about everybody in the health care business for some time now: How do you make sure people are washing their hands?

Millions Contract Illnesses From Health Care Workers

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 250 persons die in the United States every day from infectious diseases they acquired while in a hospital. And about 2 million persons get very sick from diseases like MRSA, which is usually transmitted by physical contact with a health care worker or another patient.

Those numbers, according to the CDC, the World Health Organization and several other organizations, could be cut in half just by proper hand washing. But how do you make sure people are living up to the rules?

The ideal way to do that, according to a 232-page report issued recently by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Health Care Organizations, is to be sure that every time a worker washes his or her hands, the act is "observed by someone who is invisible, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year."

Surveillance Can Be 'Resource Intensive'

The commission noted that such surveillance is too "resource intensive" to be practical, but it will require health care organizations to come up with some sort of monitoring plan by the first of next year.

Melker and his colleagues think their technology will be even more reliable than having an invisible person follow each worker around. It will supply real-time information about who is washing their hands, and how often, and it could alert a patient if the nurse who is drawing near has washed his or her hands within the past 60 seconds.

For the sake of brevity, lets limit this to Nurse Ratchet. She enters a wash station, usually within a few steps of her patient's bed. Just above the sink is a small device with a motion detector. She splashes soap, or a waterless sterilizer, on her hands and rubs them briskly beneath the device for a second or so. Soaps used in hospitals have alcohol, some of which vaporizes and is sucked into the device by a small fan.

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