After visiting Ellis Island in 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt noted the lack of hand-washing by doctors and wrote the Public Health Service that he was “struck by the way doctors made the examinations with dirty hands,” turning the examinations themselves into “a fruitful source of carrying infection.”
Fast forward 114 years: Today’s hospitals aren’t doing much better at hand-washing. That’s a serious problem in ordinary times; during the Covid-19 national emergency it could become extraordinarily dangerous. One way the government can protect public safety is by immediately setting specific hand hygiene standards for doctors, nurses, and hospital staff.
While U.S. hospitals are required to have programs in place to improve hand hygiene, there’s no actual hand hygiene goal. As one expert acknowledged, “In theory, a hospital could report a hand hygiene performance rate of 20%, improve it by 1% a year, and maintain compliance.”
There’s not even monitoring of a national compliance rate, although hand-washing remains “the most important intervention” to reduce the “staggering mortality” associated with hospital infections, according to an article in an infection control journal.
The most recent hand hygiene data — an 18-year-old study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — is discouraging. It concluded that adherence “has remained low.”
How low is “low”? According to the CDC, health care providers in U.S. hospitals clean their hands less than half the time they should. In comparison, people using bathrooms in New York train stations washed their hands afterward 80% of the time.
The medical literature doesn’t show much systemic improvement in hand-washing since the CDC last looked at the issue or, for that matter, since the Public Health Service issued an educational video showing hospital staff how to wash their hands back in 1961!
Hospitals with hand hygiene compliance in the 50% to 60% range include the kind of large, urban medical centers designated by the CDC as “first tier” treatment centers during the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak. After reviewing hundreds of inspection reports, ProPublica recently reported that “infection control has been a recurring problem at some of the very hospitals that would likely be called upon to treat Covid-19 patients.”
Better hand-washing won’t solve all infection control issues, of course, but it would significantly improve safety. The first step to achieving it is valid measurement.
A new standard from the Leapfrog Group, a nonprofit focused on improving patient safety where one of us (L.B.) works, encourages hospitals to measure hand hygiene using electronic monitoring of clinician compliance. This kind of technology is commonplace in retail and other industries.
Hospitals traditionally measure hand hygiene by having someone spot violations and report them, a technique with questionable reliability. Monitoring hand hygiene in a way that yields accurate data is vital. The Leapfrog standard is evidence-based; the government should adopt it.
The next step, getting to universal compliance with hand hygiene best practices, is even more crucial.
Based on what hospitals have already shown they can achieve, the secretary of Health and Human Services should call on all hospitals to meet an 85% hand hygiene goal within 90 days. While President Trump’s well-known use of hand sanitizer even before the Covid-19 crisis should make this an easy step for the administration to take, its obvious importance should also draw support from both parties in Congress.
Meanwhile, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services should start the process of issuing formal regulations that would include an aggressive time frame for 100% hand hygiene compliance by any health care facility receiving Medicare payments — which is virtually all of them.
It took 98 years from the time President Roosevelt pointed out the hand-washing problem at Ellis Island until U.S. hospitals were required to institute a hand hygiene program that followed the CDC’s recommendations. If a deadly pandemic doesn’t justify urgently demanding accountability for making patients safer by the simple act of clinicians washing their hands, it’s hard to imagine what will.
Leah Binder is CEO of the Leapfrog Group. Michael L. Millenson is a patient safety activist, researcher, consultant, and author of “Demanding Medical Excellence: Doctors and Accountability in the Information Age” (University of Chicago Press).