U of T startup’s "buddy badge" encourages handwashing in hospitals, could help stem COVID-19 spread

Close-up photo of hands being washed
(photo by Christine Sandu via Unsplash)

A researcher at the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering (IBBME) is developing a wearable technology that reminds front line health-care workers to wash their hands. It’s believed the technology could significantly reduce the spread of hospital-acquired infections, including COVID-19.

Dubbed the “Buddy Badge,” the wearable device acts as a transponder, using a system of sensors connected to hand-washing stations, doorways and critical routes to patient rooms. If the badge wearer has not washed their hands before entering a patient’s room, for example, it will discreetly vibrate to remind them to do so.

“The idea we are proposing is a nurse or physician arrives at work, retrieves a personalized device and carries on with their day as normal,” says Geoff Fernie, a senior scientist and former director of the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, as well as a professor at IBBME and in the Faculty of Medicine. “The device will remind them about hand-washing throughout the day.”

With the recent COVID-19 outbreak, Fernie says “the need for this system is more crucial than ever.” The additional COVID-19 cases have significantly increased the workload for health-care professionals, making it easier to miss opportunities when washing hands as recommended.

In a large intensive care unit, a nurse may encounter as many as 350 occasions during a single 12-hour shift where washing or sanetizing his or her hands may be warranted.

“Studies in some hospitals showed that our device has doubled the hand hygiene rate, which should reduce the infection rates,” says Fernie. “We hope this system helps change the habits of health-care workers, making it safer for everyone.”

Better adherence to hand hygiene could reduce infection and death rates since estimates of hand washing before and after interacting with a patient currently range from 30 to 60 per cent.

Fernie and his team have been working on wearable technology for 17 years. In 2018, this technology formed the basis of startup company Hygienic Echo, with the primary goal of reducing infections in communal settings. The idea was published in 20 peer-reviewed scientific articles and has been the subject of nine patent filings.

Fernie plans to deploy the technology in a hospital setting this summer and in a nursing home this fall.