Traditional Hand Hygiene Audits Can Lead to Inaccurate Conclusions about Physician Performance


Clinical Question: Does direct observation underestimate physician compliance with hand hygiene (HH) compared to other professional groups due to the Hawthorne effect?

Background: Although it is well-known that HH is imperative to infection control, physician compliance remains suboptimal and is often reported to be below that of nurses. The Hawthorne effect may be contributing to this perceived difference because nurses, who work on the same unit consistently, may more readily recognize hospital auditors.

Study Design: Observational.

Setting: 800-bed acute-care academic hospital in Canada.

Synopsis: Two students were trained to covertly observe physician and nursing HH compliance on inpatient units. For two months, students rotated units every week to minimize risk of discovery. Their findings were compared with data gathered by hospital auditors over the same time period.

Covertly observed HH compliance was 50% (799/1,597 opportunities) compared with 83.7% (2,769/3,309) reported by hospital auditors (P<0.0002). The difference in physician compliance was 19% (73.2% compliance with overt observation versus 54.2% with covert observation). The difference was much higher for nurses at 40.7% (85.8% compliance with overt observation versus 45.1% with covert observation). Attending physician behaviors heavily influenced team behaviors—79.5% of trainees were compliant if their attending was compliant compared with 18.9% if attending was not (P<0.0002).

Bottom Line: Traditional HH audit findings that physicians are less compliant than nurses may be at least partially due to the Hawthorne effect. Nonetheless, all healthcare providers have substantial room for improvement, and attending physicians are powerful role models to effect this change.

Citation: Kovacs-Litman A, Wong K, Shojania KJ, Callery S, Vearncombe M, Leis J. Do physicians clean their hands? Insights from a covert observational study [published online ahead of print July 5, 2016]. J Hosp Med.