Brief Reports

Do physicians clean their hands? Insights from a covert observational study

Abstract

Physicians are notorious for poor hand hygiene (HH) compliance. We wondered if lower performance by physicians compared with other health professionals might reflect differences in the Hawthorne effect. We introduced covert HH observers to see if performance differences between physicians and nurses decreased and to gain further insights into physician HH behaviors. Following training and validation with a hospital HH auditor, 2 students covertly measured HH during clinical rotations. Students rotated off clinical services every week to increase exposure to different providers and minimize risk of exposing the covert observation. We compared covertly measured HH compliance with data from overt observation by hospital auditors during the same time period. Covert observation produced much lower HH compliance than recorded by hospital auditors during the same time period: 50.0% (799/1597) versus 83.7% (2769/3309) (P < 0.0002). The difference in physician compliance between hospital auditors and covert observers was 19.0% (73.2% vs 54.2%); for nurses this difference was much higher at 40.7% (85.8% vs 45.1%) (P < 0.0001). Physician trainees showed markedly better compliance when attending staff cleaned their hands compared with encounters when attending did not (79.5% vs 18.9%; P < 0.0002). Our study suggests that traditional HH audits not only overstate HH performance overall, but can lead to inaccurate inferences about performance by professional groupings due to relative differences in the Hawthorne effect. We suggest that future improvement efforts will rely on more accurate HH monitoring systems and strong attending physician leadership to set an example for trainees. Journal of Hospital Medicine 2015;11:862–864. © 2015 Society of Hospital Medicine

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