The paper-towel and soap marketer's professional unit has found a novel way to get people to use its products -- a gentle reminder from its Hand Hygiene Voice Module, a $25 unit that every two minutes repeats the message: "Handwashing reduces the spread of germs. Thank you for washing your hands."
A startling statistic
That would seem to go without saying, but apparently not. The company cites data from the Centers for Disease Control that only 40% of health-care workers wash their hands as well or as often as they should.
Of the food-borne diseases that cause about 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, 5,000 deaths and $120 billion in losses each year, about half are caused by failure of foodservice workers to wash hands properly, said Richard Thorne, director of K-C's washroom business.
The voice module, which issues its cheery reminder in male or female voices and in English or Spanish, won't end all that. But it is a start. The company tested the module in some of its own bathrooms and found hand washing went up 12%, as measured by consumption of paper towels and soap.
Focus on health-care locales
Surely that's good news for K-C, which sells those two products to about 30% of the public bathrooms in the U.S. But the idea really is about improving public health, with the initial marketing focus on health-care institutions.
In a nod to the public-health concern, the company isn't limiting marketing of the modules to bathrooms it supplies. A number of institutions have expressed interest, Mr. Thorne said, but K-C doesn't have any installations yet. Kapnek Communications, Philadelphia, is handling public relations efforts around the new system.
Doctors are actually the main culprits responsible for that deplorable CDC figure, but Mr. Thorne hastens to point out that's probably not because they are failing to wash their hands in the bathroom, but because they're not washing every other time they should, such as between patient visits.
Hear and remember
While the K-C voice won't follow health workers everywhere on their rounds, Mr. Thorne is hoping that hearing the message whenever they are in bathroom will help -- in addition to reminding people who aren't washing their hands at all.
Mr. Thorne said K-C rejected other more intrusive messages, such as: "Hey, you, go back and wash your hands!"
"People don't respond well to mandatory compliance and 'Big brother is watching you,'" he said. "Research indicates signs in the bathroom saying, 'Management respectfully requests that you wash your hands' also were not getting results."
K-C initially saw a "massive increase in [hand-washing] compliance," up around 50% in its test bathroom, Mr. Thorne said. "It settled back into a 12% increase in compliance overall," he said, "so it's a real step change."