Handwashing compliance depends on professional status

Pamela A. Lipsett, Sandra M. Swoboda

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

44 Scopus citations


Background: Nosocomial infections can be transmitted from microorganisms on the hands of health care workers to patients. Handwashing (HW) has a proven benefit in preventing transmission of infection, yet compliance with handwashing, especially in intensive care units, ranges between 28% and 74%. Methods: To determine if HW behavior varies as a function of health care professional status and patient interaction, we conducted an observational study of a surgical intermediate care unit in a large university teaching hospital. HW compliance was observed among all health care workers (HCW): physicians (MD; N = 46), nurses (RN; N = 295), and nursing support personnel (NSP; N = 93). Over an 8-week period, unidentified, trained observers documented all HCW interactions in 1-h random blocks. HW opportunities were classified into low and high risk of pathogen acquisition and transmission. Results: A total of 493 HW opportunities were observed, of which 434 involved MD, RN, and NSP. Two hundred and sixty-one low-risk (MD 35, RN 171, NSP 55) and 173 (MD 11, RN 124, NSP 38) high-risk interactions were observed. Overall HW rates were low (44%). Significant differences existed among HCW, with MDs being the least likely to wash (15% versus RN 50%, NSP 37%, p < 0.01). In adjusting for high-risk situations, MDs (odds ratio [OR] 5.58, 95% CI 2.49-12.54; NSP, OR 1.73, 95% CI 1.13-2.64; RN, OR 0.98, 95% CI 0.77-1.23) were significantly less likely to perform HW when compared to RNs. Nursing groups were significantly less likely to wash in low-risk versus high-risk situations (MD 9.2% versus 17.1%; RN 69.4% versus 39.6%; NSP 85% versus 23.3%), suggesting individual discrimination of the importance of HW. Although nurses were less likely to wash in high-risk situations compared to NSP, the overall number of opportunities was greater, suggesting that improvement in HW to the level of NSP could have a major impact on infection transmission. Conclusion: Significant opportunities exist for quality improvement, novel educational strategies, and assessment of reasons why MDs and, to a lesser extent, RNs fail to follow simple HW practices.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)241-245
Number of pages5
JournalSurgical infections
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jan 1 2001

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Surgery
  • Microbiology (medical)
  • Infectious Diseases


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