Measuring social contacts in the emergency department

PLoS One. 2013 Aug 21;8(8):e70854. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0070854. eCollection 2013.


Background: Infectious individuals in an emergency department (ED) bring substantial risks of cross infection. Data about the complex social and spatial structure of interpersonal contacts in the ED will aid construction of biologically plausible transmission risk models that can guide cross infection control.

Methods and findings: We sought to determine the number and duration of contacts among patients and staff in a large, busy ED. This prospective study was conducted between 1 July 2009 and 30 June 2010. Two 12-hour shifts per week were randomly selected for study. The study was conducted in the ED of an urban hospital. There were 81 shifts in the planned random sample of 104 (78%) with usable contact data, during which there were 9183 patient encounters. Of these, 6062 (66%) were approached to participate, of which 4732 (78%) agreed. Over the course of the year, 88 staff members participated (84%). A radiofrequency identification (RFID) system was installed and the ED divided into 89 distinct zones structured so copresence of two individuals in any zone implied a very high probability of contact <1 meter apart in space. During study observation periods, patients and staff were given RFID tags to wear. Contact events were recorded. These were further broken down with respect to the nature of the contacts, i.e., patient with patient, patient with staff, and staff with staff. 293,171 contact events were recorded, with a median of 22 contact events and 9 contacts with distinct individuals per participant per shift. Staff-staff interactions were more numerous and longer than patient-patient or patient-staff interactions.

Conclusions: We used RFID to quantify contacts between patients and staff in a busy ED. These results are useful for studies of the spread of infections. By understanding contact patterns most important in potential transmission, more effective prevention strategies may be implemented.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Communicable Diseases / transmission*
  • Contact Tracing*
  • Cross Infection / prevention & control*
  • Cross Infection / transmission*
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / organization & administration*
  • Facility Design and Construction
  • Female
  • Hospitals, Urban
  • Humans
  • Infection Control
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Male
  • Medical Staff, Hospital
  • Middle Aged
  • Prospective Studies
  • Radio Frequency Identification Device
  • Random Allocation