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The new invention that's making doctors and nurses clean up their act

It’s gospel in the startup community that opportunity is proportionate to pain. The worse a problem, the thinking goes, the bigger the market to solve it.

For the past two years, Northwestern grads Mert Iseri, 25, and Yuri Malina, 23, have trained their sights on one of health care’s biggest pain points: clean hands.

“Hospitals currently do manual observation, so nurses will get a pen and paper and sit in a corner of the room,” Iseri says. “It’s not accurate. It’s terrible.”

Enter SwipeSense, an electronic way to track whether hands are getting washed — and infections are getting prevented.

“Hand hygiene is probably the single-most important factor to prevent any type of infection,” says Dr. Susan Bleasdale, medical director of infection prevention at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “It’s simple, it’s effective and it is a necessary thing to protect our patients and other healthcare workers.”

Doctors aren’t lazy, and nurses aren’t terminally negligent. Yet, according to a recent report in the New York Times, healthcare workers wash their hands only about 30 percent of the time they’re supposed to.

Those failures have results that are both tragic and costly. Dr. Joel Shalowitz, a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, says a full 10 percent of the 2 million annual hospital-acquired infections are directly related to workers practicing poor hand hygiene. These infections account for 100,000 deaths each year, and a 2009 study from Emory University pegged each instance’s average cost to hospitals at $13,973.

To Iseri and Malina, that sounds like a lot of low-hanging fruit in an industry whose spiraling costs have taken center stage in the national dialogue. SwipeSense produces a belt-clip hand sanitizer and wall dispenser monitor system that keeps tabs on when healthcare workers are washing their hands. When workers enter patient rooms, a Wi-Fi-connected plug-in hub records their presence and captures each time the belt-clip hand sanitizer releases gel. A real-time online dashboard tracks the activity on a group level, providing anonymity while giving hospital administrators a clear look at which units are underperforming.

That additional layer of accountability appears to drive results. A 12-week trial run at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Loyola University’s School of Nursing late last year saw a 64 percent bump in hand-sanitizer use.

Numbers like that have hospital administrators paying attention. This spring, less than a year after graduating from Sandbox Industries’ health care accelerator Healthbox, SwipeSense inked small deals with NMH’s psychiatry unit and Rush University Medical Center. By year’s end, Iseri hopes to have 10 more hospitals signed on for paid pilots.

SwipeSense’s team of four full-timers and five part-time workers is small, but they have the capital to expand quickly. In addition to $50,000 in seed capital from Healthbox, Iseri and Malina sold off $930,000 from an equity sale last fall, according to an SEC filing.

For Northwestern’s Shalowitz, SwipeSense’s fundamental obstacle concerns whether hospitals, which operate on a fixed reimbursement schedule, will be willing to put in the investment upfront, even if it saves on the back end. “Any time that you develop a new technology that they can’t charge for, it’s an issue,” Shalowitz says.

Iseri doesn’t disagree. “With SwipeSense, the savings is over a long period of time,” he says. “After preventing infections, then you see a certain dollar amount of savings within your hospital. That’s a tough sell because on day one, you’re increasing people’s costs.”

There’s also the question of competition. Shalowitz notes that if the health care industry moves toward raising the standard of hand hygiene, the question will no longer be if hospitals engage this sort of technology, but how. That means SwipeSense must remain both cost-effective and state-of-the-art in a new arena that’s likely to attract plenty of attention and ideas.

For now, Iseri is focused on moving quickly. While hospitals were his first targets, insurance companies are in his crosshairs. In fact, the future of SwipeSense may be determined by how partnerships pan out with companies like Blue Cross Blue Shield, which Iseri says is the company’s lead investor.

“We think there’s a really interesting opportunity to collaborate from the insurance provider side,” Iseri says. “We’re working on an exciting partnership with [BCBS] to see how we can collaborate on reducing these infections because there is a direct financial benefit for insurance companies as well.”

Northwestern Memorial Hospital photo