ScienceSkepticism

Bad Chart Thursday: Attack of the Hospital Elevator Buttons

I came across this article in my feed, titled “Why you should never, ever touch that hospital elevator button.” I already knew, based on the title, why I probably shouldn’t touch hospital (and other) elevator buttons: GERMS. But I clicked through anyway, because I’m a sucker for clickbait headlines, and sure enough, this is an article about bacteria. What I didn’t expect, though, was how unnecessarily alarmist the article was and the Bad Chart right in the middle of it.

Before I continue, I want to mention that I am very familiar with the issue of infections and hospital germs. Unfortunately, I have a lot of personal experience in that area, and I am always very careful about what I touch. When I visit people in the hospital, I am a stickler about making sure that everyone washes their hands. This article is not meant to mock the very real issue of in-house infections, but rather to mock this ridiculous clickbait article.

Now, back to your regularly scheduled program.

This is a story about researchers testing different surfaces in a hospital for bacterial colonization. Unsurprisingly, they found that elevator buttons were very dirty:

The results will surely lift elevator buttons to the same ick-factor status as waiting-room magazines or hotel TV remote-controls: the elevator buttons were much dirtier than the toilet surfaces. “The prevalence of colonization (with bacteria) of elevator buttons was 61 percent,” the study reads. On the toilets, it was 43 percent.

Every time there’s a “which surface is dirtiest” contest, everything is compared to a toilet, which is obviously not a fair comparison because toilets are cleaned way more often than other things that we don’t associate with disease (remote controls, restaurant menus, etc). And in fact, if the toilet surface had been dirtier than the elevator button, I would have been shocked, because that probably would have meant that the staff cleans the elevator buttons waaay more frequently than the bathrooms. That’s probably not a sign of a good business.

The above quote is followed up with this beauty of a chart:

(source)
(source)

Just to recap: 43% is less than 61%, and here is a visual representation of that fact. OK, GOTCHA.

Then there’s this followup:

But there’s some good news: the kinds of bacteria the researchers found had “low pathogenicity,” meaning they are unlikely to make people sick.

So…there’s more bacteria on the surface, but it’s less likely to make you sick. But, look at the chart! 61% is greater than 43%!!! 

And then there’s the ending:

Interestingly, while they found elevator buttons were dirtier than toilets, they were actually cleaner than hospital computer-keyboards and ultrasound transducers. Maybe this means everything in a hospital should be touchless, or at least as clean as the bathrooms.

So, elevator buttons are not the “dirtiest” things in a hospital. Wow, it’s almost like, bacteria is everywhere!! Maybe the solution is that everything should be touchless so we don’t sully our hands with “dirty” bacteria!! Eww! Don’t make me point out the chart to you again!

In fact, let me add my own bad chart to the mix. This is the amount of time that I wasted this morning reading annoyingly-alarmist clickbait articles, before and after reading this article in particular:

Source: My brain
Source: My brain

So just to recap: Surfaces are bad and full of disease. Two numbers can be compared on a bar chart to show which one is greater. If we make technology touchless, we will never touch icky germs ever again.

And now that I’m thinking of germs, time to watch my favorite Invader Zim episode!

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Mary

Mary Brock works as an Immunology scientist by day and takes care of a pink-loving princess child by night. She likes cloudy days, crafting, cooking, and Fall weather in New England.

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4 Comments

  1. Of course soon we’ll have a national Quality Measure (TM) of hospitals with published elevator button cleanliness values. This will spur hospital administrators to require all healthcare personnel sanitize their hands and put on gloves prior to entering elevators, and document their sanitizing performance. There will be obnoxious signs in lobbies and elevators reminding staff to glove before touching buttons. Quality committee meetings will show bar graphs showing a sharp rise in the rate of gloved button-pushing, and congratulate themselves on improving Healthcare Quality.

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