A campaign to improve hand hygiene in NSW public hospitals has been a success but doctors are lagging behind nurses when it comes to keeping their hands clean, collaborative research from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and the NSW Clinical Excellence Commission has found.

A series of four landmark studies found that nurses were far better performers than doctors and other allied health workers in matters of hand hygiene.

The campaign was conducted between February 2006 and February 2007 and resulted in an overall improvement in hand hygiene. However, improvement was not uniform.

The proportion of nurses who cleaned their hands after patient interaction rose from 54.5 percent before the campaign, to just over 65 percent after the end of the campaign. During the same period, doctors' figures rose from 29.6 percent to just under 39 percent.

Allied health workers' hand hygiene rates went from 40 to 48 percent.

The findings suggest much more needs to be done to educate doctors and allied health workers about the benefits of clean hands, said study author Associate Professor Mary-Louise McLaws, from the School of Public Health and Community Medicine .

"This hand hygiene rate among doctors and other allied health workers is a wake up call," Associate Professor McLaws said.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has identified hand hygiene as a key element in reducing rates of hospital acquired infections, which affect as many as 200,000 Australians each year - equal to one in 10 hospital admissions.

Associate Professor McLaws, who is epidemiology adviser to the WHO on hand hygiene and hospital acquired infections, said peer behaviour was a strong influence.

"Previous studies we've done show that nurses look to doctors for their hand hygiene compliance behaviour, yet it is doctors who are letting the side down," she said.

"We need to empower nurses to be strong advocates for their patients and to guide and remind doctors who enter their wards to cleanse their hands.

"At the same time we need research to target an education campaign specifically focusing on doctors - by doctors to doctors - because they're just not getting it yet."

The studies appear in a special supplement in the latest issue of the Medical Journal of Australia.

Media contact: Steve Offner | 02 9385 8107 | s.offner@unsw.edu.au