• Article
  • February 2, 2016

Germ-Zapping Robots Help Fight Superbugs

The latest germ-zapping technology is helping organizations reduce hospital-acquired infections.

The robots at Children's Hospital Los Angeles kills germs using plused xenon ultraviolet light, which is thousands of times more powerful than sunlight.
The robots at Children's Hospital Los Angeles kills germs using plused xenon ultraviolet light, which is thousands of times more powerful than sunlight.

Hundreds of rooms. More than 350 beds. And all of it requires daily cleaning. Every day, Environmental Services staff members at Children's Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA) work to disinfect every surface. In doing so, the team plays a crucial behind-the-scenes role in preventing infections and keeping patients safe.

Now, on top of scrubbing, spraying, mopping and wiping, the team can add another action—zapping. "We arm our doctors and nurses with high-tech tools and surgical robots, and now we're doing the same for those on the front line of our battle against infections," says Jill Hoffman, M.D., a pediatric infectious disease specialist and medical director of Infection Prevention and Control at CHLA.

As hospitals across the country look for new and innovative ways to battle pathogens and multi-drug resistant organisms that put patients at risk, CHLA has introduced four new non-human team members that can annihilate potentially lethal germs and bacteria lurking in hard-to-reach places.

The four germ-zapping robots—affectionately named Charlie, Ziggy, Phoenix and R2Clean2—use pulsed xenon ultraviolet (UV) light, thousands of times more powerful than sunlight, to quickly destroy harmful bacteria, viruses, fungi and bacterial spores. The portable disinfection systems takes about 15 minutes per room—for a total of about an hour when combined with traditional cleaning techniques.

These robots are effective against even the most dangerous pathogens, including Clostridium difficile (C-diff), norovirus, influenza and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). During a brief trial run with a robot earlier last year, CHLA says it saw a 10 percent reduction of infection rates in areas of the hospital tested. Other hospitals that have used the robots for longer periods have reported more dramatic reductions—more than 50 percent in some cases—in C-diff and MRSA infection rates.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), health care-associated infections (HAIs) are responsible for nearly 100,000 deaths per year in the United States. Recent CDC data reveal there are about 1 million reported cases of HAIs in acute care facilities a year with one in 25 patients contracting an infection.

For decades, manual disinfection protocols have been the go-to method for battling pathogens, but these protocols are often inadequate in today's world of powerful and resistant pathogens. Pathogens have developed resistance to the best antibiotics and even to some of the chemicals used to disinfect the environment—hospitals need new tools to combat these pathogens. Fortunately, the combination of this new pulsed xenon UV technology with revised policies and protocols is showing success in the battle against HAIs.

Pediatric challenges

Hospitals have begun customizing disinfection approaches with new technology to ensure the safety of some of their most vulnerable patients: children. Routine disinfection is one critical driver in preventing harmful infections among patients. However, pediatric acute care units require special attention.

And when it comes to children, hospitals must consider another complexity; children move around a hospital unit more than their adult counterparts, and they are likely to touch more surfaces that could be contaminated. Children also frequently have more visitors than the average adult patient. Parents or guardians stay at their sides for days at a time, increasing the odds of exposure to potentially harmful organisms. Playrooms and interactive common areas can also be a source for the spread of dangerous and life-threatening infections. 

Vectoring, a term that describes the transmission of infection through movement, increases in environments primarily consisting of children. Not only do children tend to move around more, touch and share toys, children by nature are constantly putting their hands and items into their mouths. The added levels of complexity raises questions about how to effectively address these risks that an adult might not experience in his or her hospital environment.

Tackling an outbreak

Disinfection technology tools are vital in preventing the spread of harmful HAIs, but they can also be used in the event of an outbreak. One hospital recently managed to battle and ultimately defeat its worst nightmare: a MRSA outbreak, an extremely harmful and hard-to-treat infection due to its resistance to many antibiotics.

The worst part? The outbreak occurred in the hospital's Mother & Baby Unit, home to some of its most vulnerable and sensitive patients. Hospital officials needed to take action quickly, as more than four dozen patients (mothers and newborn babies) became infected with MRSA.

Desperate to contain and stop the infections from spreading, the hospital needed to resolve the situation safely, effectively and quickly. Leaders turned to an increasingly popular disinfection technology—one that ultimately proved effective. The pulsed xenon UV light room disinfection robot, like the ones at CHLA, quickly zapped germs away using the full-spectrum UV light technology. Teams deployed two robots to quickly disinfect the entire unit, and the hospital reported no new MRSA infections after the disinfection.

While UV technology has been used for disinfection for decades, multiple peer-reviewed studies show pulsed xenon UV disinfection reduces hospital infection rates. Here's how it works: The robot's xenon flash lamps produce high-intensity UV light across the entire disinfecting spectrum, attacking pathogens at various wavelengths to obliterate them on high-touch surfaces in a five-minute disinfection cycle. The portable device is designed for staff members to move it from room-to-room and has the capacity to disinfect more than 30 rooms per day on a routine basis.

Customized disinfection

Even though the robots were initially deployed in adult acute care settings, they are customizable to support virtually any hospital and health care environment. Because of this, many pediatric hospitals have implemented the technology. With careful consideration in developing operating protocols that suit the needs of a children's hospital, the technology is helping hospitals reduce the incidences of HAIs by destroying the dangerous microorganisms that cause infections.

"The robot has been welcomed by staff members as a way to augment routine cleaning procedures in our operating rooms," says Jackie Gonzalez, senior vice president, chief nursing officer and patient safety officer at Nicklaus Children's Hospital in Miami. "It's part of our commitment to using the latest technology to support infection prevention protocols."

Perhaps as a bonus for children's hospitals, in addition to not only zapping bugs, the robot can provide the patients with a little bit of fun. Some children's hospitals, in an effort to create child-friendly protocols encouraging curiosity and laughter, decorate the robot for holidays and celebrations and invite children to name them.

Take control of infection

Combating the spread of harmful infections begins with education and awareness. Knowing the options for disinfection practices, hospitals can begin to reduce the risk of HAIs. This not only serves their patients but also the hospital's bottom line.

Send questions or comments to magazine@childrenshospitals.org.