The moral of the story is that you really, really need to wash your hands, especially around people in poor health.

Do you wash your hands every time you visit the restroom? Here’s hoping you do, especially if you’re visiting or working in a hospital. Unfortunately, research has shown that without encouragement, hospital workers wash their hands only about 40 percent of the time on average.

Dirty hands facilitate the quick spread of viruses. A new study shows that within a few hours, viruses can spread to 40 to 60 percent of workers or visitors in a facility from just one contaminated door handle. In a hospital, that can be the difference between health and a prolonged infection.

Learn the Importance of Proper Hand Hygiene »

Researchers from the University of Arizona placed tracer viruses on things like a single doorknob or table top — frequently touched objects in key locations like the break room or bathroom. Within 2 to 4 hours, the virus could be detected on 40 to 60 percent of workers and visitors in the building, whether it was an office, hotel, or hospital.

“What we really learned was the hand is quicker than the sneeze in the spread of disease,” said researcher Charles Gerba, Ph.D., at the presentation of his findings at the Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy in the District of Columbia this week.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 25 U.S. hospital patients fall prey to a healthcare-associated infection (HAI), including nasty conditions like pneumonia, gastrointestinal illnesses, bloodstream and urinary tract infections, and more. Research has shown that HAIs cost the U.S. hospitals almost $34 billion a year. 

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Which brings us back to hand washing and proper sanitation. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that the majority of transmissions of infection to hospital patients happen at the hands of hospital workers.

Without hand hygiene interventions like basic hand washing instructions or more extreme measures like video surveillance, adherence to proper hand washing techniques hovers just below 40 percent. Interventions can bump that number up to almost 57 percent, the WHO reports.

Some companies are taking hand sanitation seriously. PullClean is an easy-to-install door handle that doubles as a hand sanitizer dispenser. It also comes with monitoring hardware that allows users to record rates of hand sanitization and whether the device needs a refill.

PullClean, which comes from Altitude Medical, will cost $200 when it goes on sale later this year. PullClean is also a finalist in the 2014 Innovation by Design Awards. Winners will be announced October 15.

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Inventions like the PullClean door handle are designed to counteract HAIs on the battlefield — hospital door knobs. The idea is to reduce the spread of germs by putting hand sanitizer in a convenient place.

Other, less high-tech interventions like disinfecting wipes, along with proper hand hygiene, were also shown to reduce the spread of viruses.