Germ-killing robots help St. Louis-area hospital combat superbugs
A whirr, a few beeps and an intense, sustained flash of light. After five minutes, the surfaces in one part of a hospital room are completely disinfected, thanks to a robot named Max.
It sounds like something out of a science fiction movie. In fact, Max sort of looks like R2D2’s bulkier, germophobic cousin. It’s one of two robots (the other is named “Zappy”) recently purchased by St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Belleville to combat “superbugs,” a term for bacteria that have evolved to be resistant to antibiotics.
Max and Zappy use a xenon lamp to send ultraviolent rays throughout a room. When the light hits bacteria, viruses and spores, it damages their DNA so badly they can no longer replicate. According to the robot’s supplier, San Antonio-based Xenex, 99.6 percent of these microorganisms die in the process. That snags some of the more determined superbugs, like clostridium difficile, that wouldn’t be washed away during a normal cleaning.
“We originally saw this in Russia, [where xenon bulbs were] being used to disinfect the air for (tuberculosis),” said Rachael Sparks, a Xenex technical director who visited Belleville on Tuesday. “We need to focus not just on hand hygiene, and not just antibiotic stewardship, but also cleaning better and being more thorough in our cleaning.”
Superbugs tend to thrive in places like hospitals, where they become particularly dangerous, said Gautam Dantas, who leads a superbug research lab at Washington University in St. Louis.
“While you’re potentially immuno-compromised, one of these bugs that’s living on a surface or living in a ventilator could jump into you and, in some cases, prove lethal,” Dantas said.
Through the Affordable Care Act, hospitals now have a financial incentive to reduce hospital-acquired infections, and stopping superbugs is a big part of that. A big piece, Dantas said, is prevention, but it’s important to consider what happens to the bugs they don’t kill.
“That 0.001 percent that’s remaining can still be tens of thousands of bacterial cells. What’s the property you’re enriching for for those bugs that survive the treatment?” Dantas said.
The robots cost $79,000 each and were paid for by the foundation for St. Elizabeth’s parent network, HSHS. They disinfect patient rooms and surgical areas after they’ve been cleaned and have been on rotation throughout the hospital since May. Spokespeople for the hospital said they’re still crunching the numbers for whether they’ve seen a substantial reduction in hospital-acquired infections since they started using the robots.
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