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'Breathalyser for the hands' fights hospital superbugs

Wireless warning for unwashed plague-laden medics

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Medics in Florida are trying out a so-called "breathalyser for the hands" system which sounds the alarm if they try to approach a patient without having washed recently enough. The HyGreen technology is intended to block the spread of so-called "superbugs", commonly found in hospitals.

According to Dr Lennox Archibald, a prof at Florida Uni, there are two million hospital infections every year in the United States.

"A substantial number of those are preventable, and also one of the key modes of transmission is via the hands of health-care personnel and patients," he says.

The obvious way to cut down on infections would be to get the doctors and nurses and so on to wash their hands more often. But it seems that it's more or less impossible to get medical personnel in hospitals to wash their hands as often as they should without monitoring them in some way.

"It's not because people don't want to do it," Archibald said. "It's just not inherent in people's behavior to wash their hands, for some reason.

"But something has to be done," adds the prof. "Otherwise the bugs are going to win."

Enter HyGreen, in which a wireless electronic badge is worn by every doc or nurse. The badge works with warning monitor equipment fitted to patients' beds and potentially at other locations like operating theatres.

The "hand breathalyser" bit is a wall-mounted sensor system mounted in the hospital washrooms. After washing their hands, medics put them into the sensor. Provided that a suitable level of sanitiser chemicals are detected, the badge is wirelessly updated and a green light illuminates on the sensor.

Then, when the doctor or nurse approaches a patient's bed, the monitor gear interrogates their badge. If the last logged handwash-OK in the badge is sufficiently recent, the monitor flashes green. If not, a red light comes on and the badge itself gives "a gentle 'reminder' vibration".

"I do wash my hands more often," said nurse Carrie McGirr RN, who is testing the system. "It's a fairly simple process to learn."

"This isn't big brother, this is just another tool," adds Richard Melker, another of the HyGreen system's developers.

As curing hospital-acquired infections are very expensive for US hospitals (the patient's insurance naturally doesn't pay out in such a case) Melker thinks that HyGreen would pay for itself "within a few months" by preventing the need for costly treatments. It would also presumably yield worthwhile cost savings in a government-funded health service like that of the UK. ®

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