Stanford uses germ zapping robot to defend hospital from superbugs

Stanford is using a high-tech weapon to fight an enemy that's often hard to kill -- drug resistant superbugs like MRSA and C. diff.
January 31, 2014 7:06:03 PM PST
A Bay Area hospital is using a high-tech weapon to fight an enemy that's often hard to kill -- superbugs. They're drug resistant germs that can spread in hospital rooms with deadly results.

In fact, if hospitals had a most wanted list, names like MRSA and C. diff would be near the top. According to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, two million people a year are now infected by so-called superbugs, germs that have developed a resistance to current antibiotics. At busy hospitals like Stanford, killing them has become a priority.

"In the hospital, our main mission is to really ensure we don't retransmit those organisms," says Sasha Madison, Manager of Infection Prevention and Control.

The first line of defense is still meticulous cleaning of hospital rooms and O.R.s, often with bleach or powerful germicides. But the threat is considered so serious that Stanford has now brought in a hired gun -- a germ killing robot that looks like a meaner version of R2-D2. Housekeeping director Brad Igler says it kills at the speed of light.

"The top of it does raise up and it reveals a cylinder of UVC bulbs that flash, and those flashes are what kills the bacteria," says Igler.

The robot is made by a company called Xenex. It's moved into rooms only after patients are moved out or discharged. Because of the potential danger from the ultraviolet light, technicians set a timer and then leave the room. After ominously raising its head, the Xenex begins bombarding the room with pulses of ultraviolet light known as UVC, killing bacteria. The UVC light works by damaging the cellular structure of microorganisms. According to the company, it's roughly 20-times effective as bleach.

"It's to just kill, particularly, those really hardy bugs," says Madison. "And one of the most difficult to kill is C.difficile, or Clostridium difficile."

After about 15 minutes, the invisible carnage is complete. But like many high-tech weapons, it comes at a price -- about $80,000 a unit. Still, with 23,000 deaths a year in the U.S. now blamed on superbugs, Stanford believes the cost is well worth it.

"If we're able to reduce or eliminate 1 or 2 hospital acquired infections, it obviously pays for itself quickly," says Igler.

By the way, Stanford crews still clean all surfaces with traditional chemicals and say the ultraviolet light is employed as an additional measure for added safety.

Written and produced by Tim Didion


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