Device Detects Hospital Workers' Handwashing A key factor that hasn't been covered in the Senate health care debate: hand washing. Dr. Richard Melker of the University of Florida thinks that's a big problem — so big that he's come up with a modified breathalyzer that can detect whether hospital staffers have washed their hands properly. Guy Raz talks to Melker as part of our series on the most noteworthy inventions of 2009.
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Device Detects Hospital Workers' Handwashing

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Device Detects Hospital Workers' Handwashing

Device Detects Hospital Workers' Handwashing

Device Detects Hospital Workers' Handwashing

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A key factor that hasn't been covered in the Senate health care debate: hand washing. Dr. Richard Melker of the University of Florida thinks that's a big problem — so big that he's come up with a modified breathalyzer that can detect whether hospital staffers have washed their hands properly. Guy Raz talks to Melker as part of our series on the most noteworthy inventions of 2009.

GUY RAZ, host:

Now, members of Congress looking to cut health care costs ought to listen to this next story, because if they're really looking to save money, a lot of money, they might want to start by promoting handwashing.

A recent study by the Joint Commission, that's the chief hospital accrediting agency in America, showed that most hospital caregivers don't wash their hands enough, and that's one reason why about 1.7 million people get sick each year from diseases they pick up during hospital stays. And those diseases end up costing hospitals hundreds of millions of dollars to treat.

Well, Dr. Richard Melker might just have the solution. He's developed a system that automatically tracks who's washing up. And as part of our series about some of the year's most notable inventions, we tracked down Dr. Melker, who joins us from Gainesville, Florida.

Welcome to the show.

Dr. RICHARD MELKER (Professor of Anesthesiology, Pediatrics and Biomedical Engineering, University of Florida): Well, thank you very much for having me.

RAZ: First of all, why is hand washing such a problem at hospitals?

Dr. MELKER: Most health care workers are extremely busy, and a combination of being extremely busy and not always remembering to wash your hands as frequently as you're supposed to leads to the problem.

RAZ: So tell me what you sort of came up with. What is your invention?

Dr. MELKER: Basically, when a health care worker washes their hands, they place their hands under a detector which detects the presence of the alcohol in the hand sanitizer that they just used.

RAZ: Hmm.

Dr. MELKER: At the same time, they have a small badge. And each time that they wash their hands, that badge communicates with that hand wash station so that we can track every hand hygiene event by every health care worker in a hospital in real time.

RAZ: I understand that the technology that you've incorporated into this hand washing detector is kind of similar to a breathalyzer?

Dr. MELKER: That's correct. I mean, as a matter of fact, we're working on the next generation breathalyzer and it was actually fairly simple for us to design the detector portion of the system.

RAZ: So it's like a sort of shaming them into compliance kind of system isn't it?

Dr. MELKER: Well, I'd like to think that health care workers always want to do the right thing. And what we're doing is providing a gentle reminder to them that this is a very important problem and that they can help solve the problem by simply washing their hands.

RAZ: That's Dr. Richard Melker. He's the inventor of a system called HyGreen. It can detect whether hospital staffers have washed their hands. He joined me from member station WUFT in Gainesville, Florida.

Dr. Melker, thanks for joining us.

Dr. MELKER: And thank you for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

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