Better Hygiene at Public Bathrooms Than Hospitals?

09/22/2010 12:43 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

A new survey of public bathroom hygiene shows that the guy who just used the toilet at Grand Central Station is more likely to have clean hands than people at your local hospital.

The researchers didn't phrase it that way, but if you take what they found and compare it to hospital hand washing habits, you'll be asking why we continue to tolerate the mostly preventable health care-associated infections that cause more than 98,000 patient deaths annually, and add hundreds of millions of dollars in costs.

In the latest survey, researchers from Harris Interactive surreptitiously surveyed more than 6,000 adults using restrooms at Atlanta's Turner Field, Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry and Shedd Aquarium, New York's Pennsylvania Station and Grand Central Station and San Francisco's Ferry Terminal Farmers Market. The research was sponsored by the American Society for Microbiology and the American Cleaning Institute -- the soap manufacturers.

On average, 85 percent of public restroom users in those four cities washed their hands, with Chicago's science museum recording a sparkling 93 percent wash-up rate. In last place were New York City's train stations, where only 80 percent of men and women washed up.

But even the worst guys in the worst bathroom -- just 65 percent of men at Turner Field washed their hands -- represented a stellar record of sterility compared to U.S. hospitals.

According to the medical literature, baseline compliance for hand hygiene was just 26 percent in intensive care units and 36 percent in non-ICUs. A 12-month "feedback intervention" increased compliance to just 37 percent for ICUs and 51 percent for non-ICUs.

A group that accredits hospitals did report they were able to get hand washing to shoot up from flip-of-a-coin range (48 percent) to 82 percent over the course of a year.

In that effort, 27 hospitals participate in the Joint Commission Center for Transforming Healthcare. There are some 5,000 acute-care hospitals in the United States. While you're waiting for transformation to reach your local providers, odds are that you're safer at the train station.