1. Health

Hospitals turn to germ-zapping robots to kill superbugs

This machine made by Xenex Healthcare Services is rolled into hospital rooms to kill viruses and bacteria with ultraviolet light.
This machine made by Xenex Healthcare Services is rolled into hospital rooms to kill viruses and bacteria with ultraviolet light.
Published May 2, 2013

They sweep. They swab. They sterilize. And still the germs persist. In U.S. hospitals, an estimated 1 in 20 patients pick up infections they didn't have when they arrived, some caused by dangerous ''superbugs'' that are hard to treat.

The rise of these superbugs, along with increased pressure from the government and insurers, is driving hospitals to try all sorts of new approaches to stop their spread:

Machines that resemble Star Wars robots and emit ultraviolet light or hydrogen peroxide vapors. Germ-resistant copper bed rails, call buttons and IV poles. Antimicrobial linens, curtains and wall paint.

A few examples in the bay area: St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa is running a pilot program, testing an ultra-violet light machine for infection control. Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater is considering an antimicrobial paint in its hemodialysis unit, where many patients are immune compromised. St. Anthony's in St. Petersburg may add anti-microbial curtains in some areas and also is looking at the ultraviolet machine.

Insurers are pushing hospitals to do a better job and the government's Medicare program has moved to stop paying bills for certain infections caught in the hospital.

Those hospital infections are tied to an estimated 100,000 deaths each year and add as much as $30 billion a year in medical costs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency last month sounded an alarm about a "nightmare bacteria" resistant to one class of antibiotics. That kind showed up last year in at least 200 hospitals.

A renewed emphasis on hospital hygiene was triggered by the emergence a decade ago of a nasty strain of intestinal bug called Clostridium difficile, or C-diff. The diarrhea-causing C-diff is now linked to 14,000 U.S. deaths annually.

C-diff is easier to treat than some other hospital superbugs, like methicillin-resistant staph, or MRSA, but it's difficult to clean away. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers don't work and C-diff can persist on hospital room surfaces for days. The CDC recommends hospital staff clean their hands rigorously with soap and water — or better yet, wear gloves. And rooms should be cleaned intensively with bleach, the CDC says.

There's a growing recognition that it's not only operating rooms that need thorough cleaning but also bed rails and TV remote controls.

Enter companies like Xenex Healthcare Services of San Antonio, which makes a $125,000 machine that's rolled into rooms to zap C-diff and other bacteria and viruses dead with ultraviolet light. Xenex has sold or leased devices to more than 100 U.S. hospitals, including St. Joseph's in Tampa, where it is being evaluated, a spokeswoman said.

Mark Stibich, Xenex's chief scientific officer, said client hospitals report improved satisfaction scores from patients impressed by the technology.

At Cooley Dickinson Hospital, a 140-bed facility in Northampton, Mass., officials said the ultraviolet machine has done a terrific job attacking C-diff.

Some experts say there's not enough evidence to show the machines are worth it. No national study has shown they have led to reduced deaths or infection rates, noted Dr. L. Clifford McDonald of the CDC.

His point: It only takes a minute for someone with dirty hands to walk into a room, touch a vulnerable patient and undo the benefits of a space-age cleaning.

Times staff writer Irene Maher contributed to this report.