At North Shore University Hospital on Long Island, motion sensors, like those used for burglar alarms, go off every time someone enters an intensive care room. The sensor triggers a video camera, which transmits its images halfway around the world to India, where workers are checking to see if doctors and nurses are performing a critical procedure: washing their hands.
This Big Brother-ish approach is one of a panoply of efforts to promote a basic tenet of infection prevention, hand-washing, or as it is more clinically known in the hospital industry, hand-hygiene. With drug-resistant superbugs on the rise, according to a recent report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and with hospital-acquired infections costing $30 billion and leading to nearly 100,000 patient deaths a year, hospitals are willing to try almost anything to reduce the risk of transmission.
Studies have shown that without encouragement, hospital workers wash their hands as little as 30 percent of the time that they interact with patients. So in addition to the video snooping, hospitals across the country are training hand-washing coaches, handing out rewards like free pizza and coffee coupons, and admonishing with “red cards.” They are using radio-frequency ID chips that note when a doctor has passed by a sink, and undercover monitors, who blend in with the other white coats, to watch whether their colleagues are washing their hands for the requisite 15 seconds, as long as it takes to sing the “Happy Birthday” song.
All this effort is to coax workers into using more soap and water, or alcohol-based sanitizers like Purell.
“This is not a quick fix; this is a war,” said Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of infectious disease at North Shore.
But the incentive to do something is strong: under new federal rules, hospitals will lose Medicare money when patients get preventable infections.
One puzzle is why healthcare workers are so bad at it. Among the explanations studies have offered are complaints about dry skin, the pressures of an emergency environment, the tedium of hand washing and resistance to authority (doctors, who have the most authority, tend to be the most resistant, studies have found).