‘Clever Cleaning’ the Way to Beat Hospital Superbugs

Just one extra cleaner on a hospital ward can save lives and money, according to new research sponsored by UNISON, the UK’s largest public service union.

The detailed study found that one extra cleaner, using targeted cleaning methods, had a “measurable effect on the clinical environment,” cutting the number of patients who contracted MRSA and saving the hospital an estimated £30,000 – £70,000. If that were replicated in every ward in every hospital, many lives would be saved and millions of pounds.

UNISON has long argued that drastic cuts in the number of cleaners employed in the NHS has led to the rise of superbugs such as MRSA and C Difficile. In a “put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is” exercise, the union sponsored microbiologist Dr. Stephanie Dancer to carry out in-depth research into MRSA and cleaning.

The findings*, recently published in BMC Medicine, revealed that enhanced cleaning led to a 32.5% reduction in microbial contamination at hand-touch sites. Cases of MRSA fell in the 6 months of targeted cleaning on ward A. They rose again when the cleaner moved to ward B, which in turn saw the number of cases fall.

Dr. Dancer’s research focused on targeting cleaning around specific areas close to patient beds, such as lockers, trays, buzzers, curtains and the beds themselves. Good old-fashioned elbow grease and detergent were used in place of commonly used and expensive, eco-damaging alternatives such as antiseptics, bleach, chemicals and coatings. As well as cutting the number of patients who contracted MRSA, the study also saved the hospital money.

Dave Prentis, General Secretary of UNISON, said:

“MRSA has a devastating effect on patients and can cost lives. Dr. Dancer’s work has shone new light on the absolute importance of putting effective cleaning practices at the heart of infection control. It busts the myth that expensive solutions and disinfectants are needed to keep wards clean and it provides a blueprint for hospitals to cut their own infection rates.

“The number of cleaners employed by the NHS has been cut almost in two since the 80s and patients have paid the price. Armed with this evidence, UNISON will be arguing that every cleaner plays an invaluable part in the control of infections and employing more in the NHS is a win, win situation – lives are saved as well as much needed NHS money.”

Dr. Stephanie Dancer said:

“It is very tempting to look for easy ways to clean a hospital ward. Look at all the wonderful ideas out there… bug buster dusters, clean air machines, kill-all disinfectants and gases, electrostatic wall tiles, copper toilets, silver pajamas and self-clean computers, for example. Whilst such things are innovative and interesting, we should not forget that basic hospital cleaning with detergent and water is the first line of defense against hospital infections. Cleaning is hard work, and complicated work, and the gadgets, gimmicks and gizmos cannot, and should not, replace a hospital cleaner.

“Unison have always supported the hospital cleaner and the value of hospital cleaning, and I would like to acknowledge their support of this project. Cleaners are a very valuable part of the infection control team.”

*Measuring the effect of enhanced cleaning in a UK hospital: a prospective cross-over study. Stephanie J Dancer, Liza F White, Jim Lamb, E Kirsty Girvan and Chris Robertson.

Dr. Dancer’s research was carried out at the Southern General Hospital, Glasgow.

UNISON is Britain and Europe's biggest public sector union with more than 1.3 million members. Members are people working in the public services, for private contractors providing public services and in utilities.