We spend a lot of time discussing the importance of clean hands in preventing hospital-acquired infections (HAIs). Most of the time we equate clean hands with hand-hygiene compliance and complicated and fleeting surveillance and educational programs. It would be one thing if these efforts led to compliance levels above 90%, but even the Joint Commission could barely get compliance above 80% after massive efforts.
This leads me to one question: Are we asking the wrong question?
Instead of focusing solely on driving hand hygiene compliance above 90%, perhaps we should focus on clean hands. If we ask a new question: "What do we need to do at our hospital to get health care worker hands to be 90% clean?" we get very different answers than if we focus solely on increasing hand rub use. For example, we could begin studying long-acting hand disinfection products that work all day or environmental cleaning products that keep hands clean in the first place. And another thing we could consider looking at is the benefits of the humble examination glove. We just published a study in Pediatrics, led by Jun Yin, a PhD student, in statistics, that aimed to do just that.
At the University of Iowa, we have a policy that mandates that health care workers wear gloves for all patient contacts during RSV season. We wanted to see if we could take advantage of this natural experiment to see what happened to HAI infection rates during the mandatory gloving periods compared to non-gloving periods. To do that we completed a quasi-experimental study using time series analysis (Poisson regression models) on data from 2002-2010. We studied the effect in five units including a 20-bed PICU, a 62-bed NICU, a five-bed Pediatric Bone Marrow Transplant Unit, a 26-bed Pediatric Hematology-Oncology Special Care Unit, and a 35-bed Pediatric Medical/Surgical Mixed Acuity Unit.
What did we find? Universal gloving periods were associated with a 25% reduction in HAI rates after adjusting for long term trends and seasonal effects. There was a 37% reduction in bloodstream infections (BSIs), a 39% reductions in central line-association BSIs and an 80% reduction in hospital-acquired pneumonias. The reductions were statistically significant in the PICU, NICU and Bone-Marrow Transplant Unit.
Yes, this unfunded study has limitations. It's a non-randomized, single center study. There could have been other factors that started just when RSV season started every year along with the gloving policy (although we couldn't think of any). Since this intervention was turned on and off every year for nine years (with an exemption in 2009 for the novel H1N1 pandemic), it's unlikely there were other interventions that biased these results every year at the exact same time.
Perhaps we need further study and cluster-randomized trails. We won't have to wait long. There is an important AHRQ-funded study that Anthony Harris's group is just completing at the University of Maryland that looks at the benefits of mandatory glove+gown policies in ICUs. However, this study won't tell us if it's the gowns or gloves or if they work in Pediatrics. So what do we do in the interim while waiting for future trials and magical interventions that get hand hygiene compliance above 90%? All we are saying is "Give Gloves a Chance."
Reference: Yin J et al. Pediatrics April 22, 2013
Eli N. Perencevich, MD, ACP Member, is an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist in Iowa City, Iowa, who studies methods to halt the spread of resistant bacteria in our hospitals (including novel ways to get everyone to wash their hands). This post originally appeared at the blog Controversies in Hospital Infection Prevention.