Handwashing compliance by health care workers: The impact of introducing an accessible, alcohol-based hand antiseptic

Arch Intern Med. 2000 Apr 10;160(7):1017-21. doi: 10.1001/archinte.160.7.1017.


Context: Under routine hospital conditions handwashing compliance of health care workers including nurses, physicians, and others (eg, physical therapists and radiologic technicians) is unacceptably low.

Objectives: To investigate the efficacy of an education/ feedback intervention and patient awareness program (cognitive approach) on handwashing compliance of health care workers; and to compare the acceptance of a new and increasingly accessible alcohol-based waterless hand disinfectant (technical approach) with the standard sink/soap combination.

Design: A 6-month, prospective, observational study.

Setting: One medical intensive care unit (ICU), 1 cardiac surgery ICU, and 1 general medical ward located in a 728-bed, tertiary care, teaching facility.

Participants: Medical caregivers in each of the above settings.

Interventions: Implementation of an education/ feedback intervention program (6 in-service sessions per each ICU) and patient awareness program, followed by a new, increasingly accessible, alcohol-based, waterless hand antiseptic agent, initially available at a ratio of 1 dispenser for every 4 patients and subsequently 1 for each patient.

Main outcome measure: Direct observation of hand-washing for 1575 potential opportunities monitored over 120 hours randomized for both time of day and bed locations.

Results: Baseline handwashing compliance before and after defined events was 9% and 22% for health care workers in the medical ICU and 3% and 13% for health care workers in the cardiac surgery ICU, respectively. After the education/feedback intervention program, handwashing compliance changed little (medical ICU, 14% [before] and 25% [after]; cardiac surgery ICU, 6% [before] and 13% [after]). Observations after introduction of the new, increasingly accessible, alcohol-based, waterless hand antiseptic revealed significantly higher handwashing rates (P<.05), and handwashing compliance improved as accessibility was enhanced-before 19% and after 41% with 1 dispenser per 4 beds; and before 23% and after 48% with 1 dispenser for each bed.

Conclusions: Education/feedback intervention and patient awareness programs failed to improve handwashing compliance. However, introduction of easily accessible dispensers with an alcohol-based waterless handwashing antiseptic led to significantly higher handwashing rates among health care workers.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anti-Infective Agents, Local*
  • Coronary Care Units / statistics & numerical data
  • Education, Continuing
  • Ethanol*
  • Female
  • Hand Disinfection*
  • Health Personnel / statistics & numerical data*
  • Hospital Departments / statistics & numerical data
  • Hospitals, Teaching / statistics & numerical data*
  • Humans
  • Intensive Care Units / statistics & numerical data
  • Internal Medicine
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Prospective Studies
  • Virginia


  • Anti-Infective Agents, Local
  • Ethanol