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Technology in the hospital

04 January 2017

Technology is playing an increasing part in all our lives – and the healthcare sector is no exception. But what effect does the use of hand-held devices for taking notes, checking symptoms and storing medical histories have on healthcare hygiene, asks Tork manufacturer SCA?

Tablets and smartphones are becoming an increasingly common sight in the healthcare sector. Staff use them for making patient notes and checking details of medication along with recommended doses and side-effects, for example. Medical histories are often inputted into a tablet so that details of a patient’s prescriptions, x-rays and scans can be safely stored in a “cloud”. And there are even apps that simulate surgical procedures as an aid to physicians. But what are the cross-contamination risks associated with this growing use of touchscreens? 

Touchscreen risks

Bacteria and viruses can remain active for long periods on surfaces, and this of course includes screens. According to the NHS, flu germs can last for up to 24 hours on any hard surface while the cold virus can sometimes survive for seven days. So does the increased use of tablets in healthcare add to the cross-contamination threat?

It appears that it does. A Turkish study carried out in 2011 revealed that 39.6 per cent of healthcare workers’ smartphones were contaminated with pathogens.  And a more recent US study revealed that 25 per cent of tablets were similarly contaminated.

However, touchscreens appear to be no more dangerous than their low-tech predecessor – the patient file. In a 2005 US study, microbiological samples were collected from patients' bedside files in intensive care and surgical wards.

The study showed that 85 per cent of patient files in intensive care wards and a quarter of surgical ward files were contaminated with potentially pathogenic bacteria. So it seems that any item that is handled frequently and shared between staff members poses a potential contamination risk. And for this reason, the blame for cross-contamination in hospitals cannot be laid at technology’s door. 

Hi-tech hygiene tools

Indeed, technology in various forms is now being used to actually help improve hygiene in healthcare. For example, “hologram” nurses are being employed in hospital foyers in London, Bedford, Doncaster and Rotherham to remind staff and visitors about the importance of hand hygiene. Electronic badges that light up when a medic has washed their hands and vibrate when they have not are another new high-tech phenomenon. 

Automatic taps and sensor-operated dispensers for soap and hand towels help to keep hand contact to a minimum in the washroom. And “connected” dispenser systems – such as Tork EasyCube – allow staff to monitor refill levels remotely and prevent the risk of hygiene supplies running out between maintenance checks.

And as for tablets, technology is moving at such a pace that these may soon become safer than traditional patient records. In 2011 a Singapore-based company named Karuma brought out what it claimed to be the world’s first antibacterial tablet. Its touchscreen combines silver ion technology and medical grade plastic that is said to reduce the growth of harmful bacteria by up to 99.9 per cent.

Google, meanwhile, has developed a tablet enclosed in polycarbonate which can be decontaminated by soaking it in chlorine. This was designed at the request of Médecins Sans Frontières to help improve safety for medical staff treating Ebola patients in Africa. 

And tablets could have other new uses in healthcare in the future. In March 2015, prominent London GP Sir Sam Everington called for every NHS doctor and nurse to be supplied with a tablet to enable them to conduct consultations via Skype. He suggested that remote consultations could ease the pressure on doctors in overpopulated regions, and remove the risk of cross-contamination at the clinic, GP surgery and A&E department.

Today’s hand-held devices have revolutionised the way in which we work. They offer huge benefits in healthcare with their uses for note-taking, Skyping and referencing. However any object that is handled frequently by healthcare staff carries a cross-contamination risk, and this means good hand hygiene remains vitally important. If operatives ensure that they wash and dry their hands thoroughly after touching their paper files or tablets and before any patient contact, they will help to reduce that risk and ensure that technology remains a force for good in healthcare.