Hospitals use cameras, sensor tags to track hand washing

New strains of bacteria kill half of all people with serious infections, CDC says

With nightmarish superbugs threatening the lives of patients and healthcare workers, hospitals are taking considerable precautions to track who is and who isn't washing their hands.

For example, Summerville Medical Center, a 94-bed acute-care hospital in South Carolina, is having employees wear sensor tags to determine who is washing their hands before and after coming into contact with patients.

The technology was first rolled out in the medical center's intensive care unit in the spring of 2012 and then expanded to its surgery units and the emergency room.

Developed by GE Healthcare, the sensor tags are called AgileTrac RTLS (Real-Time Location System). The automated system supporting the RTLS tags collect up to 5,000 data points a day, compared with 700 per year with manual observation by staff.

Each hospital caregiver wears a badge-like sensor tag that counts room entries and exits as well as the use of soap or sanitizer dispensers. The data collected from the system is used to model and characterize clinician-patient interactions, providing detailed data to help monitor and modify behavior.

North Shore University Hospital on Long Island uses motion sensors to activate remote cameras that track when caregivers enter an intensive care room. The video cameras transmit the images to India, where workers for Arrowsite, a Web-based application services provider, check to see if clinicians are properly washing their hands.

Hospital-acquired infections cost the industry $30 billion and cause about 100,000 patient deaths a year, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

New strains of bacteria kill half of all people with serious infections and resist antibiotic treatment, the CDC said.

While new regulations impose penalties in the form of the loss of Medicare reimbursements when patients get preventable infections, a study showed the fines did not result in a significant lowering of infection rates.

In March, Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC, announced a dangerous new super bug, Carbapenem-Resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE), and urged hospitals and nursing homes to protect patients and families through vigorous hand-hygiene programs.

In a press briefing, Frieden called CRA bacteria a triple threat, explaining that the bacteria are resistant to nearly all antibiotics, have high mortality rates -- killing up to half of people who get serious infections with them -- and they can spread their resistance to other bacteria.

Other forms of antibiotic-resistant bacteria are also diminished through routine hand washing. A new study on antibiotic-resistant bacteria, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, revealed that using germ-killing soap and ointment on intensive-care unit (ICU) patients can reduce bloodstream infections by up to 44% and significantly reduce the presence of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Patients who have MRSA present in their bodies are at increased risk of developing an MRSA infection and can spread the germ to other patients.

"Patients and their loved ones also have a role to play," Frieden said. "They need to feel empowered to speak up, bring a family member or friend who can be your advocate, and insist that everyone who touches you during your medical care, doctors, nurses, technicians, visitors, wash their hands before touching you."

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Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is

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