The statistics about hospital-acquired infections are alarming. Each year, two million patients in Massachusetts and across the country acquire an infection in a hospital – or about one in every 20 patients.
Hospital-acquired infections are the fourth leading cause of death in the United States each year, claiming 100,000 lives.These infections cost the U.S. health care system between $30 and $40 billion annually in medical malpractice and treatment costs.
Many of these infections begin with neglect of what should be a hospital basic: doctors, nurses and other providers washing their hands before they treat patients. But studies have shown they are often not scrubbing up. In one study of intensive care units, health care workers only washed 25 percent of the time.
Hospitals have worked to increase their hand-washing rates over the years. That work includes monitoring how often soap dispensers need to be refilled and human observers, both observers who announce themselves and those who watch health care workers without their knowledge.
But neither solution can assess the level of hand-washing compliance in a comprehensive manner – or solve it. As for human observers, they can only provide as much monitoring as payroll resources can spare. That’s never going to be every hospital worker. In addition, data is usually entered into a computer weeks or months later. When it comes time to analyze data and recommend change, a hospital’s staff and habits may be different.
Many hospitals are now seeking answers from technology. Several companies are offering electronic badge systems that identify whether doctors and nurses have washed their hands before working with the patient.
Here’s how it works: When a health worker washes his hands or uses alcohol rub, a sensor on his badge smells the alcohol and registers it. When he enters a patient’s room, another sensor will read the badge. If the health care worker has recently washed his hands, his badge will display a green light or other indicator. If he has not, the badge will emit a signal reminding him.
Hospitals around the country are testing the systems, with many reporting a drop in infection rates. Miami Children’s Hospital used one of the systems, HyGreen, in its oncology unit and reported an 89 percent drop in infections. The hospital says the gains have been maintained eight months later.