Healthcare News & Insights

2 strange cues that could boost hand-washing rates

Despite its importance, it can be tough to make sure hospital staffers remember to follow correct hand-hygiene protocol. Now, new research shows that two odd cues may prompt more doctors and nurses to wash their hands. 

ThinkstockPhotos-465192489According to an article in Futurity, the two uncommon cues – a picture of eyes and a citrus scent – boosted hand-washing compliance rates at a hospital in Florida.

Researchers learned this by creating an experiment based on psychological priming. This describes the phenomenon where exposure to specific images, words or smells changes people’s behavior without them knowing.

Senses boost hand washing

In the experiment, researchers first observed a group of healthcare workers and hospital visitors to get baseline data on how many of them used hand-sanitizer dispensers before entering patients’ rooms.

The rates were dismal: Just 15% disinfected their hands, and more women did so than men.

After this, researchers hung a photograph of a set of eyes above the dispenser. They alternated between a pair of male eyes and a pair of female eyes. Hand-washing rates went up drastically with the set of male eyes – 33.3% washed their hands. But the group that saw the female eyes only had a 10% hand-washing rate.

Researchers theorized that this may have happened due to gender differences in emotional expressions. The male eyes showed more of the person’s facial structure, which people often perceive as demonstrating anger or threat. So this may have subconsciously convinced staff and visitors to wash their hands.

Another group of workers and visitors was exposed to a citrus smell in the patient area. This group had the highest rates of hand-washing compliance, with almost 47% of people using hand sanitizer before making patient contact. While women still washed their hands most often, men also had higher rates when the citrus scent came into play.

Researchers didn’t have an explanation as to why the citrus scent got more people to wash their hands. Though it could be this simple: The smell reminded people of a clean environment, and that inspired them to make sure they were clean as well.

What hospitals can try

Hand washing is critical to stopping the spread of infection, so any tactics that could boost compliance are at least worth trying.

This is the first study of its kind, so further research is needed before researchers can say anything conclusive. However, it couldn’t hurt to test out similar techniques using psychological priming cues at your facility.

You might not want to put up a photo of a man’s angry eyes on top of each soap and sanitizer dispenser. But you may want to see if your cleaning products vendor carries them in a citrus scent.

This could be the psychological motivation staff members need to wash their hands.

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