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Limited Impact of Sustained Simple Feedback Based on Soap and Paper Towel Consumption on the Frequency of Hand Washing in an Adult Intensive Care Unit

  • Marvin J. Bittner (a1) (a2), Eugene C. Rich (a3) (a2), Paul D. Turner (a2) and William H. Arnold (a1)

To determine whether hand washing would increase with sustained feedback based on measurements of soap and paper towel consumption.


Prospective trial with a nonequivalent control group.


Open multibed rooms in the Omaha Veterans Affairs Medical Center's Surgical Intensive Care Unit (SICU) and Medical Intensive Care Unit (MICU).


Unit staff.


Every weekday from May 26 through December 8,1998, we recorded daytime soap and paper towel consumption, nurse staffing, and occupied beds in the SICU (intervention unit) and the MICU (control unit) and used these data to calculate estimated hand washing episodes (EHWEs), EHWEs per occupied bed per hour, and patient-to-nurse ratios. In addition, from May 26 through June 26 (baseline period) and from November 2 through December 8 (follow-up period), live observers stationed daily for random 4-hour intervals in the MICU and the SICU counted actual hand washing episodes (CHWEs). The intervention consisted of posting in the SICU, but not in the MICU, a graph showing the weekly EHWEs per occupied bed per hour for the preceding 5 weeks.


Directly counted hand washing fell in the SICU from a baseline of 2.68 ± 0.72 (mean ± standard deviation) episodes per occupied bed per hour to 1.92 ± 1.35 in the follow-up period. In the MICU, episodes fell from 2.58 ± 0.95 (baseline) to 1.74 ± 0.69. In the MICU, the withdrawal of live observers was associated with a decrease in estimated episodes from 1.36 ± 0.49 at baseline to 1.01 ± 0.36, with a return to 1.16 ± 0.50 when the observers returned. In the SICU, a similar decrease did not persist throughout a period of feedback. Estimated hand washing correlated negatively with the patient-to-nurse ratio (r = -0.35 for the MICU, r = -0.46 for the SICU).


Sustained feedback on hand washing failed to produce a sustained improvement. Live observers were associated with increased hand washing, even when they did not offer feedback. Hand washing decreased when the patient-to-nurse ratio increased.

Corresponding author
VA Medical Center (HID), 4101 Woolworth Ave., Omaha, NE 68105-1873
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