Handwashing in the intensive care unit: a big measure with modest effects

L Silvestri, A J Petros, R E Sarginson, M A de la Cal, A E Murray, H K F van Saene
Journal of Hospital Infection 2005, 59 (3): 172-9
Handwashing is widely accepted as the cornerstone of infection control in the intensive care unit. Nosocomial infections are frequently viewed as an indicator of poor compliance of handwashing. The aim of this review is to evaluate the effectiveness of handwashing on infection rates in the intensive care unit, and to analyse the failure of handwashing. A literature search identified nine studies that evaluated the impact of handwashing or hand hygiene on infection rates, and demonstrated a low level of evidence for the efforts to control infection with handwashing. Poor compliance cannot be blamed as the only reason for the failure of handwashing to control infection. Handwashing on its own does not abolish, but only reduces transmission, as it is dependent on the bacterial load on the hand of healthcare workers. Finally, recent studies, using surveillance cultures of throat and rectum, have shown that, under ideal circumstances, handwashing can only influence 40% of all intensive care unit infections. A randomised clinical trial with the intensive care as randomisation unit is required to support handwashing as the cornerstone of infection control.

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