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Germ-killing robots hospital’s newest tool

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013 12:00 p.m. CDT

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DeKALB – The housekeeping department at Kishwaukee Hospital has a new weapon in the battle against superbugs – a pair of futuristic germ-zapping robots.

Staff has been training on the TRU-D room disinfecting units since they arrived in August, and they should be in regular use this month, said Vince Landeros, director of environmental services at the hospital.

The robots are a little more than 5-feet tall. Long light tubes are arranged in a narrow circle beneath a black dome; when activated, the tubes emit bright ultraviolet light that kills pathogens or prevents them from reproducing. The robots don’t replace traditional cleaning methods, Landeros said, but they offer an extra safeguard against difficult-to-kill germs or those hiding in hard-to-reach places.

“The only way to remove soil is by hand,” Landeros said. “The staff is still cleaning thoroughly by hand using an approved disinfectant. Then, any time we have patients with a particular diagnosis, this unit will be used on the room after that patient’s discharge.”

According to government statistics, every year more than 1.5 million Americans fall ill to infections picked up in a health care setting. Battling these infections, particularly those hardy bugs that have become resistant to conventional antibiotics, has become a top priority for hospitals and medical centers.

The UVC rays emitted by the TRU-D machine pose a minor risk to humans, so the unit is left in the room by itself while it cleans, Landeros said. Staff open cabinet doors and drawers and pull furniture away from walls before turning it on, so there are no shadowy places germs can hide from the light. Barricades are set up in front of the doors where the unit is in use, and a motion sensor at the door shuts it down if someone tries to enter.

The unit is placed in the middle of the room, and sensors around the dome detect reflected light and use that data to calculate how long it will take to disinfect the room. A robotic voice warns that the unit is about to become active, then the lights are switched on, bathing every corner of the room in a bluish glow.

A 2012 study by MD Anderson Cancer Center found UV treatment is especially effective against C. difficile, a hard-to-kill pathogen that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says has hit an all-time high. The CDC is funding a 30-month study on the TRU-D now underway at Duke University. A previous, smaller CDC study at Duke found the unit reduced C. difficile by almost 93 percent in hospital rooms, and reduced the total number of pathogens by more than 91 percent.

“We had been following the studies on this technology and said, if this machine can give a better, more effective cleaning, why wouldn’t we?” said Pamela Duffy, chief nursing officer at the hospital.

Duffy said pathologists in KishHealth System labs track the types of pathogens presenting in patient lab work to identify which germs are prevalent in the area and whether they are likely to be resistant to certain antibiotics. Once the robots are in regular use, she said hospital officials will be watching that data closely.

“We’ll be really paying attention and looking to see what the payoff is in the lab and what patterns are presenting,” she said.

The hospital purchased two of the units because one will be dedicated to the surgical suites, and will clean each operating room daily, Landeros said. The second unit will move around the hospital, cleaning where it is needed.

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