Busting Docs Who Don't Wash Their Hands

Here’s an interesting method of combating the hand-hygiene problem discussed at length in SuperFreakonomics: “A doctor enters a hospital room to examine a patient, but neglects to wash her hands. A special badge on her lab coat turns a deep shade of red as wireless computer components in the door, the soap dispenser and near the bed immediately relay information about the unwashed hands.?The doctor is busted.” The system is part of an upcoming pilot program at the UMass Medical School, spearheaded by Elke Rundensteiner, a computer science professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. “It can track things in real time, and those things can easily be fixed – they can wash their hands,” says Rundensteiner. (HT: Eric M. Jones) [%comments]

Ian Callum

If this ever happens, then patients will be billed for time spent washing hands. A charge for Digital Prophylactic Disinfection (DPD) will appear on statements.


why is the doctor in this scenario "she", when the large majority of doctors, and presumably non-hand-washers, are men?


If this really works, it should be installed in every U.S. hospital in the country. It is shocking how many patients contract serious staph infections while in the hospitals here, even during brief visits. My neighbor, who is battling cancer, went to a local hospital of renown here in NYC for a 2 day stay over and is now infected with MRSA, apparently the worse staph infection there is. He may end up dying from the staph while his cancer abates. He said he noticed, on several occasions, that doctors did not wash their hands as they left his room and suspects they didn't wash them before entering either. There is something downright criminal about this.

Joel Margolese

Ellen- trends in medicine are changing. I don't have the stats, have seen several articles, in many medical schools, there more women than men. (I know, I should have stats for this column...) Now, whether they continue to practice and we see that ratio 15 or 20 years out is still an open question.


@dvh: criminal is the right word. It's not like washing your hands is that much of a hassle!
I like the control system!


>> ' why is the doctor in this scenario "she" ... ? [etc.] '

OMG, you gotta love touchy hair-trigger Times readers. This is the best LOL thing I have read in a week. I actually suspect it was written by a guy!

Dr Know

All you need to do is write about the inefficiencies of doctors and you have a large crowd gleefully commenting on that. What makes healthcare topics so exciting?

Steve Cades

Dr Know, "What makes healthcare topics so exciting?" I'm happy to make a few suggestions: MRSA, for example, is a matter of life and death. Medical costs are outrageous, compared to the rest of the post-industrial world, in no small measure because we have high rates of iatrogenic illness. Docs, particularly specialists, command incomes well in excess of most of their patients, and tend toward arrogance. Will those suffice as answer to your question?


In our Angel investing group we have seen several start-ups that address this problem with varying technological approaches. Like many things, it's difficult to get something new adopted and cost is often a barrier despite the fact that one MRSA infection could ultimately cost many times more than the equipment. The difference is that the insurance company pays the settlement while the hospital pays for the technology. It would be interesting to see if behaviors are different in hospitals associated with institutions that self-insure - if there are any.

Scott Falkner


I'll bet money you're also one of those people who bitches when "he" is always the generic pronoun.


Why do we always assume in this country that technology is the answer to the problem? Whether it's airline security or hospital staff handwashing (and I submit that nurses are a bigger problem than doctors because they are far more hands-on with hospitalized patients), we figure some whiz-bang electronic gizmo is going to solve the problem.

This "solution" only reveals to the patient whether the doctor or nurse dispensed soap before entering the room, not whether he or she actually washed their hands adequately. It also puts the onus on the patient--who may well be groggy from anesthesia, meds, or severe illness, or blind, or colorblind, or intubated and unable to speak, or brain-injured and unable to communicate--to force the healthcare professionals who are taking care of them to do something as basic as wash their hands.

The onus needs to be on the doctors and nurses, not the patients. The problem is that doctors and nurses aren't washing their hands, not that patients aren't catching them. Ratting them out would only work for patients willing and able to force the issue, and only until hospital staff figured out how to beat the system anyway. The solution is to find out WHY doctors and nurses aren't washing their hands (time is one problem, skin breakdown is another) and address those issues.



OR...you could just put all the hand dispensers OUTSIDE the doors of each room and use the standard hallway cameras to ensure that every time medical staff enters (and/or exits) a room, they wash their hands.

Seems like that would be far cheaper and decidedly more low-tech. Better yet, it being in the public eye--other medical staff, visitors, patients in the hallway, and those who monitor the cameras, etc.--it might enforce compliance to an even more significant degree than behind closed doors.


Will doctors really be washing their hands under this system or will they be pulling the ole turn-on the-sink-fake-hand-wash I always pull post-urination when somebody else is in the bathroom?

Bugs Bunny.

Wash up, Doc.

Dr Know

I agree Iatrogenic illness counts for big budgets. Let us not forget the population created problems like smoking or obesity which take a huge portion of our health care dollars.
In defence of the specialists who put in about 80 hrs of work every week after going through rigors of medical school, residency and fellowship they do deserve what they are paid and more. Would you rather outsource 'medical care' than go to these arrogant 'highly paid' professionals?

tj maxx

i agree with Scott #9. Also, what's with all the doctor bashing articles lately, first the uninformative article about senile doctors in the Well blog, and now this. I understand the NYT has their panties in a wad about healthcare reform crumbling before their eyes but there's no need to throw a tantrum and lambast doctors on every article.


Can they do this for restaurant cooks/chefs, too???


Ellen. There were more women in my medical school class than men. Medical schools overall are now 50/50. Both "he" and "she" are perfectly acceptable. It is not meant to imply that women are worse hand washers. Believing the author used "she" as an intentional slight to females is akin to a conspiracy theory. Would you have commented if the article had used "he" to refer a nurse?


I love handwashing docs as much as the next woman, and
have had a (male) pediatrician curse me out for asking him to
wash and glove up (he claimed to be unable to do either) before examining my child's vulva. Many more stories of that nature, BUT, I chime in to say, please ask some nurses ( I have) about what stops handwashing, and perhaps they will point out that there are downsides for them (and presumably docs). Imagine having to wash your hands and put on new gloves all day long. Think they might get chapped? start to hurt? get sores that will be more prone to getting infected?
Economics bloggers: please admit there are downsides, and actually discuss.


The interesting question is why doctors, of all people, fail to wash their hands. They know in graphic detail exactly why this is wrong, far beyond some vague "this is bad for your health." They may not care enough about their patients, but they put themselves in danger just as much (minus the weakened immune system and plus activities like eating a sandwich with their hands). So why do they choose to skip basic hygienic procedures?