Gross Bacteria Pics Can Shame Us Into Washing Our Hands

Looking at gross bacteria up close increases hand-washing rates by 24 percent, study finds

Jun 09, 2016 at 12:55 PM ET

People who don’t wash their hands are disgusting. But they don’t think of themselves as disgusting, because even after they use the restroom, ride the subway, and blow their noses, their hands still look perfectly clean. If their hands looked dirty—they’d probably wash them.

That’s the theory behind a new paper due to be presented early next week at the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology’s annual conference in North Carolina. Researchers found that healthcare workers were more likely to wash their hands when they were shown magnified images of the bacteria found on their hands, mousepads, and workstations.

“These images put a face to the continuous hand hygiene education that healthcare workers get,” coauthor Ashley Gregory of Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit said in a press statement. Or put more simply, “they gross you out,” said coauthor Eman Chami, also of Henry Ford Hospital.

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While we’d prefer our coworkers and certainly those preparing our food to wash their hands at least occasionally, the notion that healthcare workers are lax with their hand hygiene is downright scary. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention formally recommends that many healthcare providers wash their hands 100 times per 12-hour shift, and yet “healthcare providers clean their hands less than half of the times they should,” according to the CDC. The agency also notes that when healthcare workers don’t wash their hands, they often spread diseases amongst their different patients. “On any given day about one in 25 hospital patients has at least one healthcare-associated infection,” CDC writes.

For this study, Gregory and Chami developed a new strategy for convincing healthcare workers to wash their hands—the “yuck factor.” They visited four units at Henry Ford Hospital that had particular low rates of hand-washing compliance ten times and, at each visit, swabbed common items and nurses’ hands for bacteria and showed them the results under a microscope.

The nurses were horrified. But they started washing their hands.

In fact, the study shows that, across the four hospital units, hand washing rates increased 22.9 percent, 36 percent, 142 percent and 37.6 percent—or an average of 24 percent. Not bad!

“I think healthcare workers in general become numb to the fact that hospitals are an environment of germs,” Gregory says. “pictures go a long way to breaking that detachment, and gives hospitals a new tool for their hand hygiene toolkit.”