Out of sight, out of mind: a prospective observational study to estimate the duration of the Hawthorne effect on hand hygiene events

BMJ Qual Saf. 2020 Nov;29(11):932-938. doi: 10.1136/bmjqs-2019-010310. Epub 2020 Mar 9.


Background: Human auditing has been the gold standard for evaluating hand hygiene (HH) compliance but is subject to the Hawthorne effect (HE), the change in subjects' behaviour due to their awareness of being observed. For the first time, we used electronic HH monitoring to characterise the duration of the HE on HH events after human auditors have left the ward.

Methods: Observations were prospectively conducted on two transplant wards at a tertiary centre between May 2018 and January 2019. HH events were measured using the electronic GOJO Smartlink Activity Monitoring System located throughout the ward. Non-covert human auditing was conducted in 1-hour intervals at random locations on both wards on varying days of the week. Two adjusted negative binomial regression models were fit in order to estimate an overall auditor effect and a graded auditor effect.

Results: In total, 365 674 HH dispensing events were observed out of a possible 911 791 opportunities. In the adjusted model, the presence of an auditor increased electronic HH events by approximately 2.5-fold in the room closest to where the auditor was standing (9.86 events per hour/3.98 events per hour; p<0.01), an effect sustained across only the partial hour before and after the auditor was present but not beyond the first hour after the auditor left. This effect persisted but was attenuated in areas distal from the auditor (total ward events of 6.91*6.32-7.55, p<0.01). Additionally, there was significant variability in the magnitude of the HE based on temporal and geographic distribution of audits.

Conclusion: The HE on HH events appears to last for a limited time on inpatient wards and is highly dynamic across time and auditor location. These findings further challenge the validity and value of human auditing and support the need for alternative and complementary monitoring methods.

Keywords: compliance; hospital medicine; infection control; nosocomial infections; social sciences.

Publication types

  • Observational Study

MeSH terms

  • Cross Infection
  • Effect Modifier, Epidemiologic
  • Guideline Adherence
  • Hand Hygiene*
  • Hospitals
  • Humans
  • Infection Control
  • Prospective Studies