Hand hygiene is generally considered to be the most important measure that can be applied to prevent the spread of healthcare-associated infection (HAI). Continuous emphasis on this intervention has lead to the widespread opinion that HAI rates can be greatly reduced by increased hand hygiene compliance alone. However, this assumes that the effectiveness of hand hygiene is not constrained by other factors and that improved compliance in excess of a given level, in itself, will result in a commensurate reduction in the incidence of HAI. However, several researchers have found the law of diminishing returns to apply to hand hygiene, with the greatest benefits occurring in the first 20% or so of compliance, and others have demonstrated that poor cohorting of nursing staff profoundly influences the effectiveness of hand hygiene measures. Collectively, these findings raise intriguing questions about the extent to which increasing compliance alone can further reduce rates of HAI.
In order to investigate these issues further, we constructed a deterministic Ross-Macdonald model and applied it to a hypothetical general medical ward. In this model the transmission of staphylococcal infection was assumed to occur after contact with the transiently colonized hands of HCWs, who, in turn, acquire contamination only by touching colonized patients. The aim of the study was to evaluate the impact of imperfect hand cleansing on the transmission of staphylococcal infection and to identify, whether there is a limit, above which further hand hygiene compliance is unlikely to be of benefit.
The model demonstrated that if transmission is solely via the hands of HCWs, it should, under most circumstances, be possible to prevent outbreaks of staphylococcal infection from occurring at a hand cleansing frequencies < 50%, even with imperfect hand hygiene. The analysis also indicated that the relationship between hand cleansing efficacy and frequency is not linear – as efficacy decreases, so the hand cleansing frequency required to ensure R0 < 1 increases disproportionately.
Although our study confirmed hand hygiene to be an effective control measure, it demonstrated that the law of diminishing returns applies, with the greatest benefit derived from the first 20% or so of compliance. Indeed, our analysis suggests that there is little benefit to be accrued from very high levels of hand cleansing and that in most situations compliance > 40% should be enough to prevent outbreaks of staphylococcal infection occurring, if transmission is solely via the hands of HCWs. Furthermore we identified a non-linear relationship between hand cleansing efficacy and frequency, suggesting that it is important to maximise the efficacy of the hand cleansing process.