Hospitals Test Hand-Washing Detectors

New tech makes sure health care workers wash hands before caring for patients.

ByABC News
June 9, 2009, 6:39 PM

June 10, 2009 — -- 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?

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."