How to Beat the 'Contagion' in Our Hospitals: Call Housekeeping

September 23, 2011

By George Clarke

In the last sentence of his review of the recent No. 1 box office hit "Contagion," film critic Roger Ebert writes, "You might be surprised by how many hospital patients die because of viruses they didn't walk in with."

Now, theres an idea for an even scarier sequel. And in this film, the unlikely heroes just might be found in housekeeping. Its with environmental services (EVS) in mind that my company, UMF Corporation, created the Hygiene Specialist Excellence award, for which were currently seeking nominations.*

The award, in its second year, acknowledges the invaluable contribution of EVS to providing a safe patient environment and reducing healthcare-associated infections (HAIs). We want to help elevate their role within the hospital hierarchy and give them the respect theyre due.

Whereas the apocalyptical story in "Contagion" is make-believe, its no secret to those of us in the business that ever year nearly 2 million HAIs really do claim almost 100,000 lives. In hospitals, this includes newborns in high-risk nurseries and in well-baby nurseries, and adults and children inside and outside of ICUs.

Currently, the HAI that grabs all the headlines is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). MRSA is but one pathogen; we all know there are many others. And we also know that most of these kinds of infections are preventable. Handwashing, for example, comes to the minds of most of us as one of the easiest ways to protect ourselves from many infectious diseases and it has become routine hospital protocol.

The sad fact is, though, hospital management can audit and demand handwashing all it wants, but, astonishingly, compliance rates for handwashing in American hospitals are only around a totally unacceptable 40 percent.

Whats more, weve learned that without a clean patient room environment, hands will become quickly re-contaminated. Infections are well adapted to survive in dust and on floors, bedrails, telephone, call buttons, curtains, stethoscopes, blood pressure cuffs and other surfaces.

Enter the hero of our movie sequel, "Contagion 2: Housekeepers Strike Back."

Clearly, EVS is the first line of defense in the battle against HAIs. Theres a little bit of irony here because for years, hospitals have downplayed EVSs role on this matter. Theyre thought of as those guys in the basement, at the bottom step of hospital hierarchy.

Fortunately, some medical centers have begun to realize that EVS is about more than just having a squeaky-clean, shiny hospital floor to make a positive impression on patients and visitors. EVS is about patient care at least it should be.

Last year, over a six-month period, Chicago-based Roseland Community Hospital reduced to zero the rate of infection of a specific HAI in its surgical units. The hospitals EVS department played a significant role in the success of this effort, which included organization-wide training of all staff on cleaning and disinfection of equipment and environmental surface "hot spots."

This type of success in the battle against HAIs is very doable. Structured educational programs that focus on training, education and ongoing reinforcement of best practices create a safer patient environment. Moving away from old-fashioned string mops and rags to the use of more advanced infection prevention tools like high-performance textiles designed for infection prevention combined with handwashing programs have shown to dramatically reduce HAIs in hospital settings.

Unfortunately, the staffing levels of many EVS departments are declining. This is happening as hospitals try to cut costs. Surprisingly, this is also happening as many hospitals expand their facilities and services.

Whenever we hear about hospital layoffs, we also hear that patient care will not be compromised. But if the cuts are coming from EVS the first line of defense in fighting HAIs it seems only logical that hospitals are exposing themselves and their patients to greater risk of HAI.

In our movie sequel, in the scene where the hospital patient calls housekeeping, will anybody answer? Stay tuned.

George Clarke is CEO of UMF Corporation, a developer of high performance fibers and textiles including the PerfectCLEAN® Infection Prevention System.

* Nominations for the Hygiene Specialist Excellence award are welcomed on the form provided at or at UMF PerfectCLEAN®s booth at AHEs 2011 Annual Conference & Marketplace, being held Sept. 25-28 in Kissimmee, Fla. Nominations may be submitted on or before Dec. 31, 2011, and should include information on how the nominee has demonstrated the highest professional standards and diligence in supporting infection prevention. The recipient will be announced on Jan. 15, 2012. The Hygiene Specialist Excellence award includes an all-expense-paid vacation for two to South Beach in Florida, including airfare and accommodations.