Biomedicine: Smart antiseptic dispensers promise to save lives by subtly encouraging medical staff to wash their hands more often

Biomedicine: Smart antiseptic dispensers promise to save lives by subtly encouraging medical staff to wash their hands more often

Sep 7th 2013 |From the print edition

GIVING birth was a dangerous endeavour in the 1800s; many women died soon after doing so. Ignaz Semmelweis, an obstetrician working at the time at Vienna General Hospital observed that by washing his hands with bleach before he touched his patients he could reduce their mortality rate by 90%. This was before Louis Pasteur established the germ theory of disease, and Semmelweis could not explain the correlation. After he published his findings, though, many of his colleagues were offended at the suggestion that they did not have clean hands. After all, doctors were gentlemen and as Charles Meigs, another obstetrician, put it, “a gentleman’s hands are clean”. Discouraged, Semmelweis slipped into depression and was eventually committed to a lunatic asylum. He died 14 days later, after being brutally beaten by the guards.Hygiene in hospitals has come a long way since Semmelweis’s time. But there is still room for improvement. Every year nearly 100,000 people die in America alone from preventable infections acquired in hospitals. An invention devised by Paul Alper of Deb Group, a British skincare company, could help change this.

As in Semmelweis’s day, unclean hands are a big cause of infection. Wards abound with devices that dispense antiseptic handwash, but they are not always used as frequently as they should be—the compliance rate is below 40% in most hospitals. The DebMed Group Monitoring System (GMS) is intended to encourage staff to wash their hands.

The invention itself is simple. It consists merely of adding a chip to the dispenser to monitor usage. It is the psychology behind it that is clever, because instead of being intrusive and allocating blame, as happens when dispensers in (say) toilets are monitored by cameras to make sure people who have been to the lavatory do indeed wash and sterilise their hands, it relies on peer pressure. Individuals are not singled out; wards are. What could be oppressive thus becomes a competition between groups, rather than a finger-wagging exercise within them.

The chip in each dispenser sends information to a remote server, where it is recorded, analysed and then made available either on the web or by e-mail to hospital staff in an entirely automated process. The GMS records the number of times dispensers are used in different parts of a hospital and compares this with an estimated reasonable usage, customised to the circumstances of each hospital. This target is based on World Health Organisation’s “Five Moments for Hand Hygiene”, a guide to the best hand-washing practices for different types of contact with patients. The ratio of actual to target score gives the compliance rate for a particular unit or ward. Because this provides a rating for a group of people, nobody is singled out. And if compliance is low, the offenders can correct their behaviour collectively, behind closed doors, without the need for confrontation.

If the system works as intended, it will save many lives. It should also save money, for treating hospital-induced infections is costly. According to Mr Alper, dozens of hospitals have already signed up for trials. The ghost of Ignaz Semmelweis is no doubt smiling.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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