The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority has launched an aggressive education campaign reminding health-care providers to wash their hands frequently and properly.

The WRHA launched the hand hygiene campaign on Monday as part of its ongoing effort to protect patients by increasing the frequency of hand-washing among health-care staff.

An internal audit last fall found that only 48 per cent of doctors, nurses and other health-care professionals at Winnipeg's largest hospital, the Health Sciences Centre, were washing their hands.

The numbers varied at other hospitals but officials said overall, staff were not washing their hands as often as they should be.

Arlene Wilgosh, the health authority's president and chief executive officer, conceded that health-care workers scored poorly back then, but officials are trying to get the message out.

"A lot of work has happened since the fall and our numbers are showing improvement — some dramatic improvement in some situations," she said Monday.

"But we need to get that improvement across the system, and we need to make it consistent."

Wilgosh said patients should not be afraid to ask if their health-care providers have not washed their hands before examining them.

She added that there will be consequences for staff members who regularly don't follow proper hand hygiene.

"For people that routinely, consistently — even after they've gone through a progressive disciplinary process — if they're not following the proper hand hygiene, we'll be having discussions with their regulatory colleges," Wilgosh said.

The WRHA provided some figures about hand hygiene:

  • Health-care associated infections are the fourth-leading cause of death, surpassed only by cancer, heart disease and stroke.
  • One in every nine patients admitted to a Canadian hospital develops a health-care associated infection, making it the most common serious complication of hospitalization.
  • There's an estimated 220,000 cases of health-care associated infections in Canada every year, resulting in between 8,000 and 12,000 deaths.
  • The hand hygiene rate is generally at 40 per cent, but increasing that rate by 20 per cent can lead to a 40 per cent reduction in health-care associated infections.