Hospitals Test Hand-Washing Detectors

And bingo, a light on her name tag turns green. She continues to wash her hands for the required 15 seconds (much longer if she works in the operating room) and then moves on to her patient. As she approaches the bed, her nametag triggers a green light over the bed, telling the patient and anyone else in the room that Nurse Ratchet is clean.

Tech Can Be Used 24 Hours a Day

At the same time the info is sent to a central data system, so anyone else who needs to know can also see that Nurse Ratchet is clean.

If, however, her cell phone rang just before she entered the patient's room, and she paused to talk and thus delayed her arrival by 60 seconds, she wouldn't get that green light. Instead, a vibrator in her nametag would "buzz" her three times.

"We initially had some sounds, but you are going to use this 24 hours a day, so you don't want cute little musical tunes going off every time you enter the room, day and night," Melker said.

The exact cost is not yet known, but Melker claims that if it costs $3,000 per bed, the entire system will pay for itself within six months. It's likely, he said, that it will be used first in areas where the problem is greatest, like intensive care, and later expanded to the rest of the hospital.

Diseases Acquired in Hospitals Cost Billions

Infectious diseases acquired in hospital settings result in costs of about $20 billion a year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Some estimates place that considerably higher, and the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services ruled last year that it would no longer reimburse hospitals for the expense of treating the infections.

"And they cannot pass the cost along to the patient," Melker said, so hospitals are paying a great deal of attention to the problem.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether this is the right solution. Such a device does not require any kind of federal approval, so there is no data available on how well it works other than that supplied by the folks who hold the patent. But the alternative, Melker said, is "to have people walking around the hospital periodically checking to see if people are washing their hands."

That's not a real good solution to a problem that has been around for decades. Some people thought Ignaz Semmelweiss, a Hungarian physician, had gone over the edge when he suggested that if doctors washed their hands before moving from a cadaver to the maternity ward a lot of babies could be saved. That was more than 160 years ago.

It took a long time, but now just about everybody knows that clean hands are next to godliness, especially in a hospital where most people are already sick. But hospitals are sort of like war zones. Too much to do. Too little time to do it. Easy to forget to wash up.

Maybe Melker's team has found a way to give a green light to a technological solution.

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