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Miami health centre starts RFID soap snooping

Paging Dr Kildare, you dirty bugger

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RFID tags are being deployed at the University of Miami to report when doctors and nurses wash their hands, and let them know if their fingernails aren't clean.

In contrast to previously-suggested systems involving chemical sniffers, the RFID-based technology being used in Miami just monitors when a doctor or nurse is near a bed and when they use a soap dispenser, then compares the times to ensure the latter is done directly before the former - failure to comply resulting in a recorded reminder being played out over the tannoy.

The tags transmit their ID using infrared, as radio signals didn't provide the level of accuracy needed to know if a doctor was working with a patent or just wandering past. However, the tags on the bed and soap dispenser then use an RFID connection at 433MHz to report back to the monitoring software which checks up on staff actions. (This is all explained in more detail by RFID Journal.) Thus the system requires minimal infrastructure, which makes the whole thing much cheaper.

The Jackson Health System Center for Patient Safety, a unit devoted to dealing with infections caught in hospital and largely focused on encouraging hand washing, is trying the system: the unit reckons that 98,000 Americans die from such infections every year, so getting doctors and nurses to wash their hands is a worthwhile exercise.

The unit has tried lots of staff education including scary videos and PowerPoint presentations, and even getting patients to ask doctors if they had washed their hands - apparently that has something of a negative effect on the patent-doctor relationship. But none of that seems to work, as unit director David J Birnbach explains:

"We have found that the largest factor in reducing these infections is tight control of hand hygiene [but] Study after study suggests that physicians and nurses are not complying."

One aim of the trial is to establish if audible alerts are appropriate, with flashing lights being considered an alternative. But audio announcements are the cheapest to deploy as it's just a matter of plugging in the existing tannoy - assuming doctors don't mind the whole ward knowing of their lax attitude to hand hygiene. ®

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