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Healthy Balance

Lower Infection Rates? Hand it to the Sanitizers

It wasn’t too long ago that Purell and its competitors were curiosities.

An alcohol-rich gel that disappeared just as soon as you rubbed it into your hands, sanitizing gels and foams seemed more novelty than soap substitute.

But now, just a few years after mainstream acceptance, Purell is a ubiquitous and important presence at schools, grocery stores, airports and hospitals.

Sanitizing gels also play a key role in the hand-hygiene efforts at UVA Health System, where dispensers of foams and gels are prominently featured in offices, hallways, exam rooms and restrooms.

Hands applying sanitizer

Hand-Hygiene Push

Donna Hollis, an infection preventionist at UVA, says the hospital started its Purell program about 5 years ago.

“About 2007 the CDC had a big push on hand hygiene and that’s when our hospital started,” Hollis said. “Hand hygiene has always been important since the 1700s; they found that when you wash your hands there is a decreased infection rate. But the big public awareness and push started probably in the 1990s and the Purells and making it available to everyone started around 2007.”

Fighting Hospital Infections

In a sign of its role in the war against germs, the maker of Purell, Gojo Industries, prominently touts its healthcare expertise on its website. The company offers suggestions on dispenser placement and models and encourages providers to sign up for a Health Care Highlights Newsletter.

In addition to installing dispensers throughout the health system, UVA also hires hand-hygiene auditors to monitor the hand-washing or gelling of Health System staff.

Last year, UVA work-study students from the Infection Control Auditing of Clinicians team observed 40,000 incidents of hand cleaning and helped improve hygiene rates by over 20 percentage points.

The Health System hopes to have hand-hygiene rates in excess of 90% by year’s end.

Hollis says instituting the program has made everyone more aware of the frequency with which they need to clean their hands.

“Everyone always needs a reminder and it’s okay to ask someone if they have washed their hands,” said Hollis, noting that patients should not hesitate to ask their doctors or nurses if they are uncertain.

Don’t Forget to Wash (Sometimes)

Although Purell and similar hand sanitizers are as effective or better at killing disease-causing bacteria, there are times when hand-washing with soap and water is essential.

UVA staff are required to wash their hands:

  • After eating
  • When hands are visibly soiled
  • After using the restroom
  • When treating patients with gastrointestinal issues

Meanwhile, expect more Purell dispensers and handwashing reminders throughout the Health System.

“Every opportunity matters and one missed opportunity is an infection we don’t need,” says Hollis “It only takes one missed time.”

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