Gundersen Health System has another feather in its cap, although at first glance, the reason — an acknowledged expertise in hand hygiene — seems mundane when compared with its other accomplishments.

The previous plumage includes achievements such as:

Becoming the first hospital system in the world to achieve energy independence through its use of solar, wind, wood chips and methane gas from garbage to generate power — not to mention plain old cow manure.

Being the major architect of advance directives, under the direction of Bud Hammes, for end-of-life care, an endeavor that has spread throughout the world. It’s so successful that Gundersen’s Respecting Choices arm spun off in March to join the Coalition to Transform Advanced Care in Washington, D.C., although it maintains offices in downtown La Crosse.

Being heavily involved in the communities in the 19 counties in western Wisconsin, southeast Minnesota and northeast Iowa where it has satellite clinics, hospitals and hospital partners, as well as community redevelopment efforts in La Crosse.

Achieving a Healthgrades ranking among the top 50 hospitals in the U.S. for four years running, as well as accolades for several medical specialties.

Comes now its latest kudo — being dubbed a leader in — drum roll, please — hand washing. Easy-peasy? Not so, and it’s vital when it comes to quashing infections in hospitals, according to The Joint Commission, an independent, nonprofit organization that accredits and certifies almost 21,000 U.S. health care organizations and programs.

The commission, which was founded in 1951 and is the oldest standard-setter in U.S. health care, accepted Gundersen’s submission of its report, “Decreasing Hospital Acquired Infections Through System Wide Hand Hygiene Initiatives.”

The acceptance for a submission that reflects the medical field’s proclivity for long titles also earned the report a spot in the commission’s Leading Practices Library. The library allows other health care facilities that have trouble becoming squeaky-clean to use the information to improve their own practices, said Barbara Buturusis, director of the commission’s Surveyor Management and Support, Accreditation and Certification Operations.

Landing in the internet library is no small accomplishment, Buturusis said in a phone interview from her office in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill.

“We survey thousands and thousands” of hospital procedures in a complicated vetting process to determine whether they meet standards, and few are accepted, she said.

“We’re pretty vigilant because we’re saying this does meet our standards,” Buturusis said, adding that those accepted are deemed worthy of being emulated in all health care settings.

Although Buturusis was able to confirm Gundersen’s acceptance for the library, professional courtesy prevented her from detailing the protocols that got it there.

She referred questions to Gundersen, where infection control director Bridget Pfaff said, “We’ve made hand hygiene part of our culture, engaging individuals at all levels.”

Bridget Pfaff, infection control at Gundersen NEW PIC Sept. 1917

The culture extends from top management to front lines — “every department in all 19 counties,” Pfaff said.

“I can’t emphasize enough the importance of participation at top levels. If you don’t have the leadership engaged,” other levels might not buy in, she said.

The hospital system uses various media to impart hygiene practices to employees, such as written materials, including its employee newsletter, “Bridges”; in-house and national presentations; videos of benchmark cases and other resources, she said.

Hygiene methods may vary according to work areas, she said. In some, hand sanitizers are placed in and outside hospital rooms as reminders and to make hand hygiene part of muscle memory, while “in some care areas, some (personnel) actually carry alcohol gel,” Pfaff said.

Submitting the report to The Joint Commission came at the urging of a commission surveyor who was impressed with how extensive Gundersen’s protocols are, she said.

Buturusis and Pfaff noted that the library is a good source for hospitals that struggle to convey the importance of hand hygiene — and many do, both said — a ready source of a plan.

Although health systems always have underscored the importance of hand washing as a basic step in infection control, “the turning point was in 2009, with the H1N1 flu virus,” which was a pandemic, she said.

That renewed emphasis on staying home when ill to avoid spreading the virus, taking care to cover one’s mouth when coughing or sneezing and other fundamentals to rein in the outbreak, Pfaff said.

Also raising concern were the several bioterrorism incidences in which poisons were mailed after the terrorist attacks in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, as well as unexpected outbreaks of diseases such as the mosquito-borne Zika virus, that sparked fear last year.

“Like Ebola,” Pfaff said. “We never thought that would happen.”

“We have seen fewer hospital-acquired infections,” she said. “And we are aiming for zero."

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Mike Tighe is the Tribune newsroom's senior citizen. That said, he don't get no respect from the cub reporters as he goes about his duly-appointed rounds on the health, religion and whatever-else-lands-in-his-inbox beats. Call him at 608-791-8446.

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