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Doctors, nurses and visitors at UW Hospital's main intensive care unit are putting on gowns and gloves when seeing all patients, in a national study of whether the precautions curb infection rates.

Health care workers usually wear gowns and gloves only for patients known to have certain infections.

But about 1.7 million infections occur in health care settings each year, causing nearly 100,000 deaths and costing about $30 billion, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health officials are looking at ways to reduce the spread.

Since January, workers at UW Hospital have been using gowns and gloves for all patients in the 24-bed Trauma and Life Support Center. Visitors are being told to do the same.

"We are asking: Will it reduce infections?" said Dr. Nasia Safdar, an infection control specialist at UW Health. "If it does, it will result in a practice change."

The hospital is one of 20 hospitals participating in a CDC-sponsored study called Benefits of Universal Glove and Gowning, or BUGG.

UW Hospital and nine other hospitals are gowning and gloving for all patients in select intensive care units. The other hospitals are using them just for patients with three types of infections: methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA; vancomycin-resistant enterococci, or VRE; and Clostridium difficile, or C.diff.

At UW Hospital's unit, which sees roughly 175 patients a month, about 15 to 20 percent of the patients typically are known to have the infections, Safdar said.

UW Hospital will continue its universal gowning and gloving until September, when researchers will check if the measures impacted infection rates.

Putting on gowns and gloves takes only about two minutes, Safdar said. But it increases waste or laundry costs, might stigmatize some patients and could make doctors and nurses less likely to spend time with patients, a previous study found.

Spokespersons for Meriter and St. Mary's hospitals said they follow CDC guidelines by using gowns and gloves only for patients with the infections.

Meriter and Madison's Veterans Affairs Hospital screen patients for MRSA and isolate those who test positive, another step in trying to prevent the spread of infection.

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