In a recent post, I discussed a study that showed how using a safety checklist in hospitals can significantly reduce hospital-acquired infection deaths. One of the most important items on that checklist — washing hands.
It seems a simple item, but to err is human, and err we do, often with big consequences. Close to 2 million hospital-acquired infections occur each year and more than 250 related deaths occur each day in the United States, according to the CDC. Up to half of those infections could be prevented if health-care workers washed their hands more often. Reason being: the six pathogens (including MRSA) that account for two-thirds of all hospital-acquired infections are transmitted by hand.
The safety checklist is one way to help minimize the problem, but it can’t really make people wash their hands more often. What can?
Enter HyGreen, the hand breathalyzer. Using sensors capable of detecting drugs in breath, new technology developed at the University of Florida monitors health-care workers’ hand hygiene by detecting sanitizer or soap fumes given off from their hands. It also logs, down to the second, the frequency of hand cleaning and contact with patients in a database that supervisors can review immediately.
Here’s how it works: The health-care worker squirts sanitizer gel or soap into his or her hand before passing it under a wall-mounted sensor. A wireless signal from a badge worn by the worker activates a green light on the hand-washing sensor. When the worker enters a patient’s room, a monitor near the bed detects the status of the badge, and flashes green if the person has clean hands. If the person has not washed, or too much time has passed between washing and approaching the patient, the badge will give a gentle “reminder” vibration.
Right away this technology is going to beg Big Brother critiques (as my tongue-in-cheek title to this post alludes). It is, after all, surveiling peoples’ actions in real time. But I see little difference between it and the checklist approach, in that both are tools helping our brains trigger behaviors that prevent dire consequences.
The gadget’s inventors say that they crafted the technology with the Hawthorne Effect in mind, a controversial theory predicting that people who are being studied will alter their behavior as a response to knowing that they’re being studied. I suppose that may be relevant, but it doesn’t hurt that those who are doing the studying in this case are also the health-care workers’ supervisors.
The big takeway here, I think, is that washing hands to prevent infection seems utterly rational, and it is. But that by itself is not enough to enable the behavior. I like what psychologist Gary Marcus, author of Kluge, said about this in an interview I did with him last year:
Being rational is not something that comes natural to us, but is (at least to some degree) something we can do; the real trick is to remember to do it. I think of it a bit like trying to fix your golf swing; you may naturally want to bring your shoulders up, but if you work hard enough at it you can learn to keep them down. The problem isn’t so much in keeping your shoulders down for one shot, but in learning to do so routinely.
Our problem as a species is not that we can’t behave rationally, but that usually we don’t; simply being aware of that fact can help us to build better habits.