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Hospital Workers Wash Hands Less at End of Shift

New research suggests mental fatigue may be responsible for lapse in hygiene

THURSDAY, Nov. 13, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Health workers in hospitals wash their hands less often as they near the end of their shift, and this lapse -- likely due to mental fatigue -- could contribute to hundreds of thousands of patient infections a year in the United States, according to a study published online Nov. 3 in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Researchers examined three years of hand-washing data from more than 4,000 caregivers at 35 U.S. hospitals. Sixty-five percent of the study participants were nurses. Another 12 percent were care technicians. Four percent of those involved in the study were physicians, and the remainder included other types of health care workers.

The researchers found that compliance with hand-washing protocols fell by an average of 8.7 percent from the beginning to the end of a typical 12-hour shift. Increased work demands were associated with greater declines in hand-washing compliance rates. The more time that hospital workers had off between shifts, the more closely they followed hand-washing protocols.

"For hospital caregivers, hand-washing may be viewed as a lower-priority task and thus it appears compliance with hand hygiene guidelines suffers as the workday progresses," Hengchen Dai, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, said in a news release from the American Psychological Association. Using data from previous studies, Dai and her colleagues extended their findings to all hospitals in the United States and estimated that lower hand-washing compliance among hospital workers as their shifts progress could lead to an additional 600,000 patient infections a year at a cost of $12.5 billion annually.

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