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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

How does healthcare worker hand hygiene behaviour impact upon the transmission of MRSA between patients?: an analysis using a Monte Carlo model

Clive B Beggs1, Simon J Shepherd1 and Kevin G Kerr12*

Author Affiliations

1 School of Engineering, Design and Technology, University of Bradford, Bradford BD7 1DP, UK

2 Departments of Microbiology Harrogate and District NHS Hospital Health Care Trust, Harrogate District Hospital, Lancaster Park Road, Harrogate HG2 7SX, UK

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BMC Infectious Diseases 2009, 9:64  doi:10.1186/1471-2334-9-64

Published: 15 May 2009



Good hand hygiene has for many years been considered to be the most important measure that can be applied to prevent the spread of healthcare-associated infection (HAI). Continuous emphasis on this intervention has lead to the widespread opinion that HAI rates can be greatly reduced by increased hand hygiene compliance alone. However, this assumes that the effectiveness of hand hygiene is not constrained by other factors and that improved compliance in excess of a given level, in itself, will result in a commensurate reduction in the incidence of HAI. However, there is evidence that the law of diminishing returns applies to hand hygiene, with the greatest benefits occurring in the first 20% or so of compliance. While this raises intriguing questions about the extent to which increasing compliance alone can further reduce rates of HAI, analysis of this subject has been hampered by a lack of quantifiable data relating to the risk of transmission between patients on wards.


In order to gain a greater understanding of the transmission of infection between patients via the hands of healthcare workers (HCWs), we constructed a stochastic Monte Carlo model to simulate the spread of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) between patients. We used the model to calculate the risk of transmission occurring, firstly between two patients in adjacent beds, and then between patients in a four-bedded bay. The aim of the study was to quantify the probability of transmission under a variety of conditions and thus to gain an understanding of the contribution made by the various factors which influence transmission.


The study revealed that on a four-bedded bay, the average probability of transmitting an infection by the handborne route is generally low (i.e. in the region 0.002 – 0.013 depending on the hand hygiene behaviour of HCWs and other factors). However, because transmission is strongly influenced by stochastic events, it is the frequency with which 'high-risk events' occur, rather than average probability, that governs whether or not transmission will take place. The study revealed that increased hand hygiene compliance has a dramatic impact on the frequency with which 'high-risk events' occur. As compliance increases, so the rate at which 'high-risk events' occur, rapidly decreases, until a point is reached, beyond which, further hand hygiene is unlikely to yield any greater benefit.


The findings of the study confirm those of other researchers and suggest that the greatest benefits derived from hand hygiene occur as a result of the first tranche of compliance, with higher levels (>50%) of hand hygiene events yielding only marginal benefits. This suggests that in most situations relatively little benefit is accrued from seeking to achieve very high levels of hand hygiene compliance.