Hygiene in healthcare - 2023 cleaning challenges

7th of April 2023
Hygiene in healthcare - 2023 cleaning challenges
Hygiene in healthcare - 2023 cleaning challenges

The world has changed dramatically since the beginning of the decade. ECJ talks to players in the healthcare sector to find out about the key challenges of the 2020s – and finds out how they plan to go about tackling them in 2023.

The healthcare landscape has gone through a series of crises since the 2020s began. Covid-19 was of course the big one, with hospital teams stretched to capacity in every country across the world. Hospital cleaning protocols became increasingly important because healthcare facilities were suddenly at real risk of becoming super-spreader institutions.

Then staff began falling ill themselves, and this led to gaps in care. Meanwhile, many healthcare workers opted to leave the industry in the light of the growing pressures along with the dangers their own roles represented. This meant staff shortages became another issue.

And added to this were the economic and climate crises which began to polarise opinion and change people’s attitudes. All healthcare spending suddenly became subject to ever more intense scrutiny as corners had to be cut while every purchasing decision had to be seen to be fully sustainable.

So, how have industry players coped with the changing landscape of the 2020s? And how far have the challenges they have encountered altered the face of healthcare cleaning?

The staff shortages experienced over the past few years have had a significant effect on service provider Derrycourt’s business according to general manager Avril McCarthy. “We used to find it hard to recruit staff members, but people tended to stay in the job once we had taken them on,” she said. “However we are now having a much greater problem with staff retention.” She puts this down to the cost-of-living crisis – another significant factor that is affecting the modern world.

“Today’s economic pressures have meant that people will quickly leave their job if they get a better opportunity,” she said. “We also employ a lot of people from abroad and Covid gave them the chance to stop and think. Many of them realised they had been in a rat race before the pandemic and a significant number have now decided to go home to be nearer to friends and family.”

Derrycourt has reacted to these staff shortages by launching a major recruitment campaign in Eastern Europe. “We have invested in advertising and have offered to help set people up and to find them accommodation,” said McCarthy.

“We have also tried to adapt our employment model to suit the workforce available to us. For instance, there are currently a lot of students in Ireland from Brazil who are allowed to work for up to 20 hours a week during term time. So we have adapted our rosters to suit their availability.”

Surprisingly, McCarthy feels that the global pandemic has brought some positives to the healthcare cleaning sector. “Covid shone a public spotlight on what we do and it meant cleaning became perceived as having increased value,” she said. “People began to understand the scale of what could happen when things went wrong, and the cleaners themselves gained more respect which gave them a boost. And as a result, cleaning changed from being ‘just a job’ and became something of which many of our people were proud to be doing during Covid.”

Sustainability change

The growing urge by members of the public to adopt more sustainable practices has changed the way in which business is conducted, she said. “Obviously there was a much greater adoption of single-use disposable items during the height of the pandemic, and that doesn’t really fit the sustainability model,” she adds. “However, this was necessary from an infection control viewpoint.

“But we at Derrycourt are increasingly using microfibre cloths and we have also been setting up laundries on site so that we can clean these cloths internally.”

The company has recently switched over to plant-based detergents, she says. “We have been actively looking at sustainable products that are equally as effective as traditional chemicals,” said McCarthy. “These products are more expensive to buy but they also reduce the packaging burden and delivery frequencies.”

The advent of new technologies has made further differences to the way the business is being carried out, she said. “Digital checklists, auditing systems and client ticket service desks have all become more popular post-Covid,” according to McCarthy. “However, robotics haven’t really taken off yet in our view because they are only suitable for specific locations and you often still need a person to control them. And the price of robot cleaning equipment needs to come down before it is adopted more widely.”

Derrycourt’s healthcare regional manager Stephen Conway says the profile of training has also been raised in recent years. “We invest massively in training, but there has been a general understanding about the need to develop the cleaner’s skills,” he said. “Operatives need to know what equipment they should use, what order in which they should use it, and whether or not a room might require multiple cleaners.”

He adds this scrupulous attention to detail has been very much a post-Covid factor. “A room might look clean, but in a hospital it needs to be cleaned to microscopic levels,” he said. “And if the correct processes have not been followed or a step has been missed, there will be a risk of cross-contamination.”

He points to certain changes in the way in which healthcare cleaning is being carried out, particularly in Ireland. “Healthcare staff used to clean all patient areas while the cleaners would carry out the more general cleaning tasks,” he said. “This meant three or four people might be responsible for cleaning the same room - and this would lead to some areas being missed and others being cleaned twice, resulting in inefficiencies.

“Today’s staff shortages have meant that one person is increasingly being made responsible for the entire cleaning operation which makes the process more efficient.”

The cost-of-living crisis seems to have had little effect on Derrycourt’s business, however. “People haven’t become any more cost-conscious than they used to be – but they are more concerned than ever with getting results,” he said.

The pandemic years have taught Momentum Support some valuable lessons, says CSR and quality manager Verona Pentony. “We were incredibly proud to see how well our operatives adapted to the new challenges presented by Covid,” she said. “Between the onset of the pandemic, multiple lockdowns and through to the eventual reopening we had to evolve our way of working in numerous ways.”

She says recruitment has been a challenge for various reasons. “These include greater competition and a small talent pool due to high levels of overall employment,” she said. “However, it is essential to maintain the standards that clients expect and to avoid compromising on quality.”
Tactics such as recruitment drives, advertising and employee referral schemes can all help to ease the staffing situation, according to Pentony. “But it is also important to communicate to potentially interested parties the key benefits of working for your company,” she said.

Today’s focus on climate change and sustainability has also impacted on the sector, she says.
“Now more than ever, clients want partners who share their values. Climate change and sustainability are at the forefront of our values and those of the clients we work with.”
The past few years have led to particular challenges in the healthcare sector for hand hygiene companies, says GOJO’s UK managing director Chris Wakefield.

Sourcing problematic

“When demand outpaced supply in 2020 it meant production needed to be increased to ensure there was plenty of hand cleansing and sanitising products to go around,” he said. “However, the issue of sourcing bottles, pumps and caps became more problematic which meant that creative new partnerships needed to be forged to secure these additional components.”

He says the picture has changed over recent months. “In the industry there is a feeling people are beginning to overlook the importance of hand hygiene and that compliance levels have started to fall again, even within the NHS,” he said.  “So, hand hygiene companies and healthcare facilities managers need to work together to influence healthy behaviour.”

Staff shortages are partly to blame for falling hand hygiene compliance levels, according to Wakefield. “Our own research among healthcare trusts has revealed that staff are feeling stressed and overburdened, and as a result they don’t feel they have the time to clean their hands as often as they should,” he said.

Lessons to be learned

“In the long term there needs to be a bigger conversation about recruitment and workloads. But in the short term we recommend that antimicrobial hand hygiene solutions should be supplied to all healthcare workers to allow them to sanitise their hands while moving around between patients to reduce lost time.” GOJO supplies personal bottles of Purell Advanced Hygienic Hand Rub for this purpose.

Sustainable thinking has become a fundamental element of how companies behave, trade, and grow in the current climate, according to Wakefield. “Today’s clients are seeking products that are not only effective and competitively priced, but also environmentally friendly,” he said.
So, what lessons can be learnt from the past few years? And how should businesses respond going forward?

Co-operation, respect and integration need to be built into working models according to Derrycourt’s Avril McCarthy. “Contract staff need to be integrated into the team and be given the same staff discounts as everyone else,” she said. “This makes them feel more included and helps with staff retention.

“And the best cleaning results are realised when the client is actively engaged. We need to be able to count on the client’s communication and support because if we all work together, we will achieve a better outcome for everybody.”


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