Hand Washing in Nursing Homes: How Technology Can Help

| September 09, 2012

Nursing home workers aren't washing their hands often enough, according to a recent study in the . Some new technology solutions might help improve worker hygiene and reduce facility-acquired infections.

Hand washing was in the spotlight in August 2012 after the Journal of Applied Gerontology (JAG) reported a dramatic increase in the percentage of nursing homes that have received deficiencies in “hand hygiene.” A number of new technology solutions could help reverse that trend.

The Hand-Washing Challenge

According to the JAG study, 12% of nursing homes were cited for hand-washing deficiencies in 2009, up from 7.4% in 2000. That increase is particularly troubling, says New York Times columnist Paula Span, because infections represent the “single greatest cause of sickness and death, the reason underlying a quarter of all hospitalizations from long-term care facilities.”

How can nursing homes and other health care facilities ensure that staff members wash their hands often and thoroughly? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other organizations provide a host of materials and programs to educate and train health care workers on when, how and why to wash their hands. But aging services providers still face the challenge of making sure that their staff members practice these guidelines day in and day out.

Some new technologies could help by alerting caregivers when they haven’t washed their hands – or haven’t washed them well enough.

High-Tech Bracelets and Badges

Caregivers using the Hyginex system wear a special bracelet that communicates wirelessly with a soap dispenser in each resident’s room. When the caregiver approaches a resident, the nearby soap-dispensing unit senses his or her presence and sends a signal that causes the bracelet to light up and vibrate.

In addition to reminding caregivers to wash their hands, the Hyginex system also:

  • Alerts workers if they haven’t washed well enough, according to Co.Exist. The dispenser can determine if workers take enough soap from the dispenser and if they spend enough time rubbing their hands together.
  • Keeps a detailed log of hand-washing compliance. At the end of the month, managers can review these figures to see how well the facility is doing. 

After a 2-month trial in an Israeli intensive care unit, Hyginex was credited with increasing hand-washing compliance from 25% to 44%. Another trial found that workers were washing their hands for longer and using more soap.

Several competing hand-washing systems use badges instead of bracelets to track hand washing. In addition, one sanitizing system from alumni of Northwestern University clips to a caregiver’s belt loop. Instead of washing with soap and water, caregivers swipe the sanitizer as if they were wiping their hands on their pants. These and other devices are associated with reductions in infections that range from 22% to 89%, according to a 2011 New York Times report.

An Expensive Solution?

High-tech hand washing systems have one significant drawback. They can be expensive to install. New York Times Blogger Tina Rosenberg reported in 2011 that facilities could expect to pay between $1,500 and $2,000 per bed for some systems. 

However, Rosenberg reports that the expense associated with facility-acquired infections has experts convinced that the systems could pay for themselves within a year.