05/03/2012 11:53 EDT | Updated 07/03/2012 05:12 EDT

Nova Scotia law would measure hospital hand washing to improve patient safety

HALIFAX - All Nova Scotia health authorities would have to report hand washing rates to the province's Health Department and make them public under legislation proposed Thursday.

Health Minister Maureen MacDonald said the province's nine health boards already monitor hand washing rates and report to a national safety body, but there is no uniform reporting method in order to compare rates within Nova Scotia.

MacDonald said the province's health system needs to do a better job of measuring hygiene rates.

"If you are not measuring the problem then it's very difficult to fix the problem," she said.

She said the goal is to eventually expand reporting to include hospital infection rates and the immunization of health care workers.

Health Department official Suzanne Rhodenizer said the government doesn't know what current rates are in hospitals across the province and needs to develop a standardized auditing procedure.

Rhodenizer said research indicates hand washing rates in hospitals is somewhere around 40 to 50 per cent, where a more acceptable benchmark would be between 80 and 90 per cent.

"Ideally, 100 per cent would be great, but that might not be realistic," she said.

A report in March said the failure of staff to properly wash their hands contributed to an outbreak of C. difficile at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital's intermediate care unit between late December and early February.

There were a total of six confirmed cases of the bacterium. Two patients died, but the causes of their deaths are still under review.

MacDonald said the legislation was not introduced in response to that specific case, adding that her department has been working on the problem for the last two years.

The Health Department said the legislation is expected to be in place by the fall with the reporting procedures in place by next April.