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The Age Of Big Data – What Can It Do For Hand Hygiene?

Keith Warriner
August 23, 2016


In 1927 Flitz Lang released the classic movie “Metropolis” that tells the tale of how in 2027 the human workers would become slaves to machines. Who could forget also the Terminator series of films which depicted how machines would eventually try to take over the world. Thankfully, we are some way off from machines ruling the roost although in the last 5 years one cannot help but notice how technology has advanced. Indeed, we are now in the area of Big Data that is considered the biggest advancement since the Industrial Revolution. Big Data has come about through major advances in computing power and data storage. Indeed, the quickest super computers can perform over one million billion calculations per second with a halo disk having sufficient capacity to store 160 of your favorite DVD’s. Alongside the mindboggling computer power, the internet speeds have also become unbelievably fast. In the early 1990’s, we were connected to the internet via dial-up connections that would take an age to simply load a simple web page. Now we reach speeds of megabites per second thereby enabling live video streams that are now taken for granted.


So what can we do with all this computing power?

The high speed connections and computing power, along with micro-radio transmitters, has led to the concept of the Internet of Things. Now, with such power we have the possibility of remote sensing, monitoring and control. Being human though, we like to bring all these technological marvels to undertake the most mundane tasks. For example, it is possible today to buy a smart fridge that you can connect with when shopping to see if you have enough milk for your morning cereal.


The 4 V’s of Big Data

When the area of Big Data was being developed the early researchers described data in terms of four dimensions or parameters. Specifically, Volume (amount of data), Velocity (the speed in which data is acquired), Variety (types- numbers, text, sound, images) and Veracity (quality of the data). The early researchers may have reconsidered the V theme as additional parameters have been introduced such as Value (savings incurred by implementing Big Data systems) and Visualization (how to represent the data in a usable form) – serious challenge of running out of V descriptors. The computing power is required to sort, process and visualize the data. The technology to date has been primarily used for marketing, resource management, in addition to developing search engines and how Netflix picks your favorite shows.


So what has the Internet of Things to do with hand hygiene? 

Hand washing compliance is a critical part of reducing the transmission of pathogens in clinical settings and food handling environments. Currently, we rely on people to wash their hands when required and moreover, do it correctly. People being people, often forget to wash hands or if they do then it is a superficial rinse. With the Internet of Things it is now possible not only to track where people are but also determine when they wash their hands and the amount of soap used by virtue of a smart soap dispenser. In principle, it will also be possible to visually monitor people who undertake high risk operations, such as handling raw meat or taking out the garbage. All this data is transmitted via the cloud to a central data base that aggregates the information to indicate if individuals are in compliance with hand washing.


What to do with the data?

Generating data is one thing but the big question is what to do with it. One could envision a vibrating or light device that alerts the individual to wash their hands. It is also possible for a manager to monitor hand washing activities and use the technology to identify compliers vs non-compliers.

The health care sector is ahead of the game

DebMed_APIC_Hand_Hygiene_web.jpgOne of the first hand hygiene compliance monitoring systems was developed by DebMed.  Each of the hand soap and sanitizer dispensers has a sensor inside of it that is used to capture 100% of actual hand hygiene events in real time. The event data is then compared to the number of hand hygiene opportunities that should have occurred based on the WHO 5 Moments for Hand Hygiene to determine the compliance rate.  A recent first-of-its-kind study found a correlation between using the data from the DebMed System to improve compliance around the WHO 5 Moments and significantly reduced hospital-onset MRSA infections. The hospital in the study found more than a 25% increase in compliance and a 42% reduction in MRSA. Studies using similar handwashing compliance systems have reported comparable increase in compliance underlining the effectiveness of the approach over traditional methods based on observers or shelf-monitoring.



Learn more about DebMed's Group Monitoring System (GMS).


Is Big Brother watching?

One of the big concerns about the advent of the Internet of Things is the ethics on how data is managed and accessed. For one, workers would feel uncomfortable with there every step and activity being monitored. Even management may shift in their chair if it was possible for a public health inspector to be able to log into a database to see if an establishment is conforming to hand washing or other food safety activities. In this regard, it is more probably that a computer within the Public Health Department would continuously scan facility/establishment databases then highlight those showing a level of non-compliance that would prompt a visit from an inspector (human for now hopefully).


So what of the future?

Big Data offers many possibilities from real time monitoring of compliance to data mining to identify hitherto unidentified associations linked to hand washing activities. Within the Big Data age the question arises that all because we can do it should we do it?  t could be perceived the technology is intrusive suggesting that Flitz Lang was right all along about his Metropolis “Big Brother” vision. However, one would hope the management with food establishments, regardless of size, would wish to have a high level of hand washing compliance within their facility. Therefore, it is likely that the balance between enhanced monitoring and intrusion would be to see people as groups as opposed to individuals. By doing so there would be less resistance to implementing the technology thereby that ultimately will enhance hand hygiene practices within the food and related industries.


Articles of interest

Big Data (Available at

Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital Increases Hand Hygiene Compliance by 40% in Four Months With DebMed® GMS™

Ward MA, Schweizer ML, Polgreen PM, Gupta K, Reisinger HS, Perencevich EN: Automated and electronically assisted hand hygiene monitoring systems: A systematic review. American Journal of Infection Control 2014, 42:472-478.


Deb Med


Deb Med MRSA Study


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