When Doctors Know Patients Are Watching, Are They More Likely To Wash Their Hands?

Doctors are more motivated to wash their hands if they know their patients are keeping tabs on their hygiene habits, according to a new study.

In addition, patient observations seemed to accurately reflect the hand-washing rates of doctors, the American Journal of Infection Control study showed.

The study was conducted at Women's College Hospital in Canada between August 2012 and June 2013. Patients at the hospital were given survey cards and were asked to watch the hand-washing practices of healthcare providers at the hospital during their visits. Doctors, nurses and other staff at the hospital were aware that patients would be filling out these survey cards about their hand-washing habits.

Most patients given the cards participated in the program, with a card return rate of 75.1 percent. According to the survey cards, the hand-washing compliance rate by the health care providers was 96.8 percent.

The researchers found that the accuracy of the observations on the cards was quite high, with the patient reports matching the observations of trained nurses that were also observing the health care providers' hand-washing habits 86.7 percent of the time.

Doctors also reported being more likely to practice good hygiene with the program. After the program ended, 58 percent of the health care providers said that they had changed their hand-washing practices, and 88 percent said they felt motivated to be better about their hand hygiene if they knew a patient was watching them.

Health care providers also said that the program made them more likely to have conversations with their patients about infection control.

Good hand hygiene in health-care settings is vital for preventing the spread of infection. A recent report showed that about one in 25 hospital patients will experience a hospital-related infection.

As such, this is certainly not the first time researchers have looked at ways to improve hand-washing among health care providers. A 2011 study in the journal Psychological Science, for instance, showed that signs asking doctors to wash their hands for the sake of their patients -- versus for the sake of themselves -- could improve hand-washing motivation. Some hospitals have even employed systems that track whether doctors wash their hands; a hospital in Missouri, for instance, has a system where a light on a badge will turn green when a hospital staffer's hands are deemed clean, and red if the hands still aren't clean enough.

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