"Just clean your hands," the Ontario Ministry of Health is telling health-care workers in an effort to reduce hospital-acquired infections.

Ten hospitals, including Ottawa Hospital, are participating ina Health Ministry pilot program called "Just Clean Your Hands" that is designed to improve hand hygiene among the province's health workers.

A total of $1 million in one-time funding was provided to the 10 pilot sites to pay for an on-site project co-ordinator and other related expenses, and to test and evaluate the program.

"One thing we know is that thousands of Canadians die of hospital-acquired infections each year and that we can prevent many of these deaths with good hand hygiene," said Dr. Virginia Roth, Director of Infection Control at Ottawa Hospital.

Proper hygiene is considered the best way of preventing the deadly spread of bacteria in hospitals, yet a 2004 study in the Annals of Internal Medicine has shown that more than 50 per centof health care workers fail to wash their hands properly.

The pilot program includes education and making alcohol rubs more readily available so handwashing ismore convenient for employees.

In a recent CBC Marketplace investigation into hospital disease transmission, hidden cameras caught a doctor failing to wash after touching a table in the room of a patient with pneumonia and a superbug.

"It can be very difficult to remember, as you have to wash your hands hundreds and hundreds of times a day," said Dr. Denise Belanger, Director of Surgery at Ottawa Hospital. "We know the practical application of this is very challenging."

Patients should be as proactive as possible in medical situations, health workers said Monday.

"I'm an emergency doctor and I make it my responsibility to wash before and after examining a patient," said Ottawa Hospitalvice-president Dr. James Worthington. "But I would not be offended if I were asked by a patient."

The risk of transmitting disease once prompted Ottawa Hospital to consider such extreme measures as the banning of handshakes, yet the idea was rejected.

It is hoped that the comprehensive pilot program will ultimately prove more effective.

Ontario's Health Ministry will review the results of the six-month project as part of a longer-term, provincewide campaign.