New Use for Duct Tape: Fighting Infection

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Duct tape seems to have infinite uses, from the silly to the sinister. It’s an essential tool in any handyperson’s arsenal. But a Midwest hospital system seems to have found a genuinely unique way to utilize the ubiquitous sticky stuff: to control the spread of infection.

Hospital acquired infections are an enormous public health problem, causing 99,000 needless deaths annually and adding some $30 billion per year to America’s medical bills, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One in 20 people entering a hospital will develop a new infection during their stay.

Standard infection control measures require health-care workers to don sterile gowns, gloves and masks before entering the room of patients who are in isolation — even just to have a conversation — because of the risk of acquiring or spreading infection. But these tactics are tedious and time-consuming. They also present literal barriers to communication with patients, making both hospitalized people and health-care workers feel dehumanized.

So, the infection-prevention team at Trinity Medical Center, which includes four hospitals located in the Quad Cities region of Illinois and Iowa, figured out a way to control infection without the need for all the sterile garb. They used duct tape to mark a “red box” safe zone — a three-foot-square area extending from the door into the patient’s room — from which hospital employees could communicate safely with isolated patients.

If the nurse or doctor ventured no further than the red box, gowns and gloves weren’t necessary, so patient calls could be answered quickly and protective gear could be used only when necessary — that is, when crossing the duct-tape line. The tape served as both a boundary and a reminder of the need for fresh sterile attire before crossing.

The research suggests that using duct tape saved the health system $110,000 a year and 2,700 hours of staff time.

Janet Nau Frank, a registered nurse and consultant to the hospital system, presented the research recently at the International Meeting of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology.

Kaiser Health News reported:

Franck said that she has been contacted by several doctors eager to employ the red zone in other hospitals. She recognizes the irony in how a taped-off zone across from the patient’s bed could actually help improve the patient-doctor relationship.

“The staff have more opportunities for face time — they can pop in and ask patients how their pain level is, how they are feeling. It’s funny because I think we overlook the most simple opportunities that can provide the reward.”

In fact, in a separate study this week, researchers reported that another common household product also reduced infections in hopsitals: the lowly cotton swab. The study found that painlessly probing wounds after surgery with Q-tips cut infection rates from 19% to 3%.

Researchers aren’t yet sure why the Q-tips help, but they think they may prompt the release of contaminated fluids that can become infected. Amazingly, the simple tactic of gently probing surgical wounds with the swabs daily reduced hospitalization time from seven to five days, cut pain and improved cosmetic outcomes for the scars.

The study was published in the Archives of Surgery and authored by Dr. Shirin Towfigh of L.A.’s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.