The University of Chicago Medicine more than doubled the industry's daily hand-washing rate during a recent 24-hour, campuswide challenge by using a monitoring system to track compliance. 

The one-day "Big Wash" inspired nearly 97,000 hand-hygiene events in 24 hours, which translates to about one hand scrubbing per second. The figure is based on the number of times each patient, visitor and employee used hand sanitizer or soap as they entered and exited a patient room.

Hospital administrators used Smartlink, a hand-hygiene monitoring system developed by Gojo Industries Inc., Akron, Ohio, to track staff use of soap and sanitizer dispensers. The system involved the use of 2,581 sensors to track hand hygiene at the three-hospital campus on Chicago's South Side for 24 hours.

Nurse managers and the hospital's infection control team spurred clinicians and visitors to participate in the event with signs, educational charts, balloons, cookies and even hand lotion.

They also deployed visible cues and themed decorations, and handed out stickers for people who were spotted washing their hands by trained observers. The event was documented on social media under the hashtag #BigWashUCM.

"The event highlighted an everyday priority — that sanitized hands are safe hands — in a fun way," says Emily Landon, M.D., hospital epidemiologist. "It was really a triumph of excellent hand hygiene that has never been described anywhere before."

While patients may expect hand-washing perfection in any health care setting, hand-hygiene rates are notoriously low across the country. Studies peg the figure at roughly 40 percent compliance.

It's a vexing problem for health care organizations, which have been struggling to get employees to wash their hands consistently. The practice is a critical way to control infections and improve patient safety, particularly since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in 25 patients in the United States gets a hospital-acquired infection.

Industry standards of measuring hand hygiene involve personal observation, and are unreliable because people traditionally comply with hand-washing policies only when they're being watched. When the watcher leaves, hand-hygiene rates drop. 

University of Chicago Medicine had hoped for 100 percent compliance during the 24-hour period. While the hospital fell short of its ambitious goal, many hospital units doubled their hand-washing rates and nearly a dozen logged 100 percent compliance. Units with the highest compliance and the biggest improvement won prizes.

"When we work together, it's amazing what we can accomplish,"says Gretchen Pacholek, R.N., director of surgical and multispecialty services.

Hospital leadership hopes the event and installation of the monitoring system will serve to improve hand-hygiene rates at the health care facility. They also hope to inspire other hospitals to follow suit with similar tracking efforts.

The University of Chicago Medicine and Biological Sciences comprises the Pritzker School of Medicine, the University of Chicago Biological Sciences Division and the University of Chicago Medical Center.