Patients Become Partners

There's more than one way to skin a cat. Just ask Maryanne McGuckin, Dr.ScEd., who designed and implemented a creative program that resulted in a 34 percent increase in handwashing activity, based on calculated soap-usage, among a study-group of healthcare workers in New Jersey. Instead of enlisting the cooperation of the workers directly (as is typically the case when handwashing-compliance programs are re-emphasized in hospital settings), McGuckin and her research team went directly to the patients.

"Once we educated patients about the importance of handwashing, they became eager participants in our study," explained McGuckin, senior research investigator at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center. After learning that handwashing is the single most important procedure that can be performed to prevent the spread of hospital-acquired (or nosocomial) infection, newly-admitted patients to the West Jersey Health System were invited to participate in the research effort.

Some 441 patients agreed to become "Partners in Your Care" for the duration of their hospitalization. As part of the six-week protocol, patients agreed to ask every healthcare worker who entered their room, "Did you wash your hands?" (For patients too shy or uncomfortable with such a direct approach, playful blue weebles -- with an attached "Did you wash your hands?" banner -- were attached to their hospital gowns.)

After conducting follow-up phone interviews (with 276 of the original 441 patients) and calculating handwashing rates (based on soap-usage per bed day and handwashings per bed day), the researchers concluded that soap usage by healthcare professionals increased 34% at all four participating hospitals. To translate, handwashing activity increased from 2 to 12 handwashings per 24-hour shift.

"Our findings document, for the first time, that the education of patients about their role in promoting handwashing compliance among healthcare workers can increase that compliance, as well as provide continuous reinforcement of handwashing principles to healthcare workers," said McGuckin.

The study results were presented by Dr. McGuckin at the seventh annual meeting of The Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America, which was held in St. Louis, Missouri.

"This isn't rocket science," admits McGuckin, of her study, "but it's going to have a real impact." McGuckin and her team believe that patient-based educational programs such as the one designed by them can be quite effective in increasing handwashing compliance among healthcare workers - which, in turn, can reduce the risk of hospital-acquired infections in patients. "It's a win-win proposition," she adds, "because the patient's risk of acquiring a nosocomial infection is reduced and, over time, could impact on the hospital's infection rates."

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