30 November 2013

IBM tackles MRSA and other healthcare infections with RFID-enforced hand washing tech

It’s crazy, but one of the most dangerous things you can do is visit the hospital. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that nearly two million hospital patients contract a healthcare-associated infection (HAI) every year, and 90,000 of those HAIs result in death. These infections superbugs such as MRSA and Clostridium difficile (C. diff) are caused by bacteria being transferred from patient to patient, usually via a doctor or nurse. Hand washing is by far the simplest solution to these 90,000 unnecessary deaths, but getting healthcare professionals to reliably wash their hands has proven to be difficult. This is where IBM and its low-power mote technology (LMT) comes in.

According to the CDC, 1 in 20 patients contract an HAI while visiting hospital, resulting in 1.7 million infections. These HAIs, while not particularly difficult to treat in healthy adults, play havoc with newborns and intensive care patients, resulting in 90,000 deaths per year and an additional $30 billion in healthcare costs. Many of these deaths could be avoided by adequate hand washing before treating each patient, but the latest research says that doctors and nurses only wash their hands 50% of the time. IBM hopes to boost that percentage, and significantly reduce the number of HAI-related deaths and healthcare costs, with some new tech.

The setup is very simple: At one of OhioHealth’s hospitals in Ohio, IBM has covered two floors of the hospital with a network of 100 LMT sensors in hallways, doorways, and at hand-washing stations. Each doctor and nurse is given an RFID-enabled work badge, allowing the LMT network to track their movements around the hospital. If a doctor or nurse enters a patient’s room, and then fails to use the hand-washing station, that transgression is logged by a central server.

The central server then performs “compliance processing,” producing a web page that shows an hourly “compliance report” for each card-carrying staff member. It can also produce a weekly report, showing the average compliance level for a given job role, work shift, and so on. Given that the current compliance rate is so low (50%), IBM’s tech could make a massive change, saving thousands of lives and billions of dollars in healthcare costs.

There’s no word on when IBM’s LMT will be rolled out to more hospitals, but presumably it hinges on whether the OhioHealth trial is successful or not. In the mean time, if you have the misfortune of being a hospital patient, there are a few things that you can do to reduce your chances of getting an healthcare-associated infection. Remind doctors, nurses, and any visitors to wash their hands when they come to see you. Wash your own hands, every time you come into contact with germ-carrying surfaces (bathrooms, door knobs, hands). And, of course, keep your wounds clean and dry if your injection or catheter site becomes moist or dirty, tell a nurse.

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