Image: Washing hands
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There are about 2 million incidences of hospital-related infections each year in the United States, many of which are transmitted by hand.
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updated 10/13/2009 3:36:53 PM ET 2009-10-13T19:36:53

New health care technology could sniff out one of the leading causes of death in the United States.

HyGreen hand hygiene sensors, developed at the University of Florida, can detect whether doctors and health care workers have followed hand-washing procedures before making contact with patients. If they don't, their ID badges will vibrate and alert a database that the employees failed to wash up.

The technology could potentially cut down on the 2 million incidences of hospital-related infections each year in the United States, many of which are transmitted by hand.

"If you look at the hospitals in the United States and all the health care workers," said Richard Melker, HyGreen Chief Technology Officer, "hand hygiene adherence in the best of the hospitals is around 50 percent."

Compare this number to the percentage desired by The Joint Commission, which accredits and certifies health care organizations around the nation. The organization's National Patient Safety Goal (NPSG) campaign intends to boost hand-washing compliance to at least 90 percent among participating hospitals.

The HyGreen system basically works like a Breathalyzer for the hands.

When health care workers enter a patient's room, they wash up and run their hands beneath a nearby HyGreen sensor. The HyGreen sensor activates a green LED light on workers' badges to signal that their hands are clean.

A proximity monitor by the patient's bed then sends out infrared and acoustic signals to the badges, and when the health care workers approach, the monitor verifies that the green badge light is illuminated. If it isn't, the badges quietly vibrate to alert health care workers to clean up.

Because of the potential for cross-contamination, the area around the patient's bed should be treated as a "cocoon of protection," Melker told Discovery News.

However, the technology isn't intended to alarm patients or hinder doctors and other medical professionals from doing their jobs. In fact, HyGreen is designed to promote hand hygiene accountability discreetly in hospitals rooms.

"All we want to do is remind the health care workers to wash their hands," Melker explained. "We don't want to make a big deal out of it."

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Whenever the HyGreen bed monitors verify if health care workers have washed their hands, they send that information, along with the time and location, to a wireless database maintained by the hospital's infection prevention team. That way, hospitals can know in real time which workers aren't washing up. And, if a hospital-acquired infection breaks out, they can pinpoint the source more accurately.

Anecdotal reports from pre-market testing indicate that health care workers respond favorably to HyGreen's silent surveillance and practice better hand hygiene.

"Even if every bed on a floor isn't monitored, there's a buzz that goes around about the new technology, and everyone washes their hands more often," Melker notes.

Most hospitals directly monitor hand hygiene, and health care workers also keep an eye on one other. But the incidence rate of hospital-acquired infection remains high, resulting in 90,000 deaths every year and costing anywhere from $6.7 billion to $45 billion in related health care expenses.

Hand-washing is undoubtedly the first line of defense in curbing the transmission of infectious diseases in hospitals, but figuring out exactly why health care workers fail to wash up is "the $64 million question," said Anne Marie Pettis, Director of Infection Prevention for the University of Rochester Medical Center and spokesperson for the Association for Professionals in Infection Control.

"The most frequent reason [health care workers] give for not washing their hands is not having convenient access to sinks or hand rubs," Pettis told Discovery News. "Over the last several years, we've tried to take that obstacle away as much as possible."

Although the reasons behind low hand hygiene compliance remain unclear, HyGreen could answer the question of how to improve those habits once they're installed at early adopter hospitals in spring 2010.

"It's very good timing that we've come up with a solution at a time when the hospitals need to solve this problem," Melker said.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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