Survey finds improvements in hand-washing habits

Sep 14, 2010 (CIDRAP News) – Observers who staked out public restrooms in four US cities found that 85% of people using the facilities washed their hands afterward, the highest level since researchers began regularly studying the behavior in 1996, according to a report released yesterday.

The findings, conducted by the Harris Interactive polling group on behalf of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) and the American Cleaning Institute, a soap and detergent trade group, were released yesterday at the annual Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy in Boston.

The ASM and the trade group say they conduct the study on a regular basis to raise awareness about the importance of hand washing. The behavior has taken on extra importance in the public health realm over the past several years as a key tool for preventing the spread of seasonal flu, pandemic flu, foodborne illnesses, and hospital acquired infections.

The hand-washing survey included a companion telephone survey of hand-washing behavior. Ninety-six percent of respondents said they wash their hands regularly after using the bathroom, a finding that has been consistent over the years.

In the observational part of the study, observers watched hand-washing behavior at six public venues, including Turner Field in Atlanta, two museums in Chicago, two transit stations in New York City, and a ferry terminal at San Francisco's farmer's market.

Survey workers found that the number of men washing their hands increased since the last survey in 2007, from 66% to 77%. However, they noted that women are still better at regularly washing their hands in public restrooms, as their rate improved from 88% in 2007 to 93% in 2010.

As for hand-washing behaviors in different cities, rates were highest in Chicago and San Francisco at 89%, followed by Atlanta at 82% and New York City at 79%. Researchers found that the venue with the highest levels of hand washing was Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry. The earlier surveys in 2007 and 2005 took place at the same locations.

The phone survey found an increase in the percentage of Americans who say they wash their hands after changing diapers: 82% said they did, which is up from 73% in 2007.

The observational survey included 6,028 adults who appeared to be age 18 and older. The phone survey consisted of 1,006 interviews and was conducted between Aug 4 and 8.

At a media briefing to unveil the study findings, Didier Pettit, MD, with the infection control program at the University of Geneva Hospital in Switzerland, told reporters that the 2009 H1N1 pandemic seems to have made an impact on hand washing. "The public is not ignoring hand hygiene," said Pettit, who is also the lead official with the World Health Organization's Clean Hands program.

Barbara Hyde, the ASM's communications director, said that though the observational study is anecdotal and not scientifically rigorous, the serial nature of the survey has shown steady improvement since 1996, when about 68% were seen washing their hands after going to the bathroom.

She pointed out that the high levels were noted during August of this year, after the pandemic threat had diminished. "We're hoping that this is indicating that there has been a behavior change," she said.

However, Hyde said the phone survey findings show some areas for hand-washing improvement. For example, only 63% said they wash their hands after sneezing and coughing. Though that percentage is rising, public health experts would like it to be higher, Hyde said,

See also:

Sep 13 American Cleaning Institute press release

Hand washing survey results

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