A state panel charged with health care unveiled its first major initiative Tuesday: an effort to improve hand-washing at Maryland hospitals.

Called the Maryland Hospital Hand Hygiene Collaborative, it's funded by $100,000 in federal stimulus money provided through the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It's voluntary, but state officials expect almost all of the 47 acute-care hospitals in Maryland to participate because they want to reduce potentially avoidable infections that have large human and financial costs.

Most already have begun efforts to improve hand-washing by employees - which started before the recent H1N1 flu pandemic but could help control the spread. The main benefits of the new program are creation of a system for officials to share best practices and to uniformly report progress, said Health and Mental Hygiene Secretary John Colmers.

Colmers said he hopes the program becomes a model for other states. Across the nation, there are an estimated 1.7 million hospital-acquired infections annually, 100,000 deaths and $30 billion in additional health care costs, according to estimates from the CDC this year. The state began collecting data about certain infections acquired in hospital intensive-care units only in the last year, and results are not yet available, according to the Maryland Health Care Commission.

"I call this the low-hanging fruit," said Colmers about hand-washing. "It's one of those things that we know the evidence suggests ought to be done and is not being done consistently."

The state and federal governments have other plans in place to decrease the occurrence of hospital-acquired infections. Maryland, for example, is considering financial incentives for hospitals.

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