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The versatile duct tape takes center stage in infection control

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture

Infection control in hospitals has a new ally: the all-purpose, jack-of-all-trades duct tape. That’s right – red duct tape can save hospitals a lot of time and money by clearly defining a safety zone in which healthcare workers and visitors may stand while interacting with the patient. A presentation abstract at the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology 2011 Annual Meeting, held in Baltimore, MD, has made a definitive case for using the tape to more effectively limit the spread of infection, while at the same time saving valuable time, and money.

The idea is so simple one wonders what the big news is about, or why it hasn’t been standard practice for a long time now. Essentially, the red duct tape would be used to define a limited square or box within a patient’s room in which personnel and visitors can safely stand without coming into contact with potential pathogens. The square’s borders would be at least three feet away from the patient.

Current standard practice in interacting with patients on “contact precautions” (to be discussed below) is to don protective scrubs and gloves – personal protective equipment, or PPE – each time a healthcare worker enters the threshold of the patient’s room. The worker must then dispose of the PPE as soon as he or she exits the room. This is cumbersome and time-consuming, especially for short or minimal exchanges that are nevertheless part of the protocol of hospital care. The process and the equipment also appear to interfere with patient communication. But there might now be a way to improve patient care and infection control outcomes. And the study shows that it is far more economical.

Defining a safe zone with red duct tape saved more than 2,700 hours a year and at least $72,000 a year in PPE at Trinity Medical Center, a 504-bed magnet hospital system in the Quad Cities on the Iowa/Illinois border, according to Janet Nau Franck, RN, MBA, CIC, a consultant and infection preventionist who described her team's findings.

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The team was in for a pleasant surprise. The potential time and money saved was far more than expected, she said. When initially conceived, the intent of the study was to look for an easier option for staff to more frequently communicate with patients.

Patients on “contact precautions” are those individuals who have a history but no active infection with a multidrug-resistant organism, such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. The patients are a growing trend in the United States. Multidrug-resistant infections have been spreading in this country at an alarming rate, and most have, in fact, been spread from within hospitals. Containing these pathogens is therefore an urgent priority. The red-box approach could help boost infection prevention and control efforts by allowing staff to quickly communicate and assess patients.

In rooms of patients on contact precautions, the floor would be marked with red tape in a 3-foot square, extending from the threshold of the door. According to infection-control policy, a gown and gloves still have to be worn anywhere in the room outside of the red box. The study demonstrated that healthcare professionals could safely enter the red-box area without PPE for quick communication and assessment.

The savings in time and money is estimated to be greater if they included physicians’ interactions with the patient, as well as pastoral and dietary staff. And more healthcare workers would be more likely to enter the room, thereby improving patient care. Two thirds of healthcare workers surveyed reported that the red box reduced communication barriers. Eight in 10 of those surveyed said they saved time when they didn't have to don PPE. Another 8 in 10 said they could assess and communicate with patients more frequently.

The strategy is simple and inexpensive, and may be applied in other healthcare settings where infections control is a prominent issue, such as long-term care and home healthcare.