Hospitals across the country, including in Minnesota, are all fighting to stop the 1.7 million infections that occur each year in their facilities.

Ecolab has introduced a new tool for them to add to their arsenals.

A new color-coded monitor will alert patients — and health care providers themselves — if doctors, nurses or aides need their hands washed or sanitized again.

Hospitals gained motivation to slow the rate of infections in 2014, when the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services started tracking rates of hospital-acquired conditions and financially penalizing those with the worst rates.

Ecolab saw studies showing that only 40 percent of health care professionals regularly washed their hands and recognized a niche for the St. Paul company. The company launched its system in January.

"Digital hand hygiene monitoring is a new space, and we are seeing interest really pick up as more and more hospitals seek to reinforce the importance of proper hand hygiene procedures," said spokesman Roman Blahoski.

Ecolab's technology requires health care workers to wear electronic badges with "immediate action monitoring" indicators that light up green, yellow or red when inside a patient's room.

The badge system, designed to be visible to the patient and visitors, lights red and beeps if health care workers have not sanitized their hands before approaching a patient's bed. Green indicates clean hands.

The system also records when the health care professionals use soap or sanitizer from a monitored dispenser.

"These status alerts help health care workers as well as patients and visitors know if hand hygiene protocols are being followed," Ecolab officials said.

Ecolab initially acquired the technology when it bought the Florida-based UltraClenz in October 2016.

Ecolab's team then spent last year modifying the system, identifying markets and beta testing it in Florida hospitals.

The product, which Ecolab exhibited last week in Minneapolis at the annual conference of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, is slowly being introduced in hospitals nationwide.

San Luis Valley Health installed Ecolab's system in two of its Colorado hospitals in April and gave 490 health care workers monitoring badges.

Ecolab trained the staff to use the system, which covers the hospital's 49 patient beds in Alamosa, and 17 beds in Conejos County. Areas tracked include the emergency room, a chemotherapy infusion center, the ICU and medical and surgery centers.

So far, so good at San Luis. The hand-washing compliance rate jumped from 31.6 percent to 70 percent in six weeks.

"Hygiene compliance more than doubled since we started using the badges. It's pretty cool technology," said hospital infection prevention practitioner Jessica Watt.

Watt expects the technology to grow rapidly as word spreads that there's a new tool to help combat a major problem.

The Centers for Disease Control attributes 99,000 deaths each year to infections acquired at health care facilities.

Ecolab has long manufactured hand sanitizers, but saw an opportunity to expand the business through buying UltraClenz.

In addition to the outward lights and beacons, the system transmits worker hand-hygiene data to a computerized "dashboard" that lets hospital managers see where improvements are needed.

The price of the system depends on the number of hospital beds monitored. Prices could range from $450 to $650 per bed per year, Watt said.

Allied Market Research estimates the global hand-sanitizing market is worth about $1 billion and could grow to $1.7 billion in five years.

But Ecolab has competition in the area, including 3M and Johnson & Johnson.

The new monitor device is under Ecolab's $4.7 billion Global Institutional business, which caters to restaurants, hotels, schools, nursing homes and hospitals.

The company also sells surgical drapes, water filtration, hand sanitizing, laundry and food-safety chemicals.

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725