High-tech germ-zapper invades hospital rooms

jholleman@thestate.comOctober 23, 2013 

XENEX

Call it the portable room disinfection system, and it sounds boring. It’s so much sexier to refer to the high-tech device as a germ-zapping robot.

And why not? The device, manufactured by San Antonio-based Xenex, is about the size of Star Wars star R2D2. When the disk atop the main body rises to its full height, it does have a robotic look.

But all of the robot talk overlooks the fact the device is an incredibly effective germ-killing machine. That’s why Palmetto Health bought six of the machines – they go for $125,000 each when a three-year service plan is included – for its Columbia-area hospitals.

The machines pulse xenon ultraviolet light 25,000 times more powerful than sunlight, strong enough to kill the kind of bacteria and viruses that bedevil hospitals. Hospital-acquired infections are a major problem throughout the industry. The potent UV light zaps away the major players – staph, norovirus, Clostridium difficile (C. diff.) and Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA).

“We do surveillance for hospital-acquired infections and look out for potential transmissions of microorganisms in the hospital environment,” said Dr. Sangita Dash, infectious disease specialist with Palmetto Health. “We are constantly looking to improve methods to prevent them.”

About 200 hospitals in the country have bought the devices from Xenex, according to Rachael Sparks, technical director for the company. Palmetto Health, which began using the devices in August, was the first hospital company in South Carolina to buy one.

Xenex gives each of the machines a name as it is assembled in the factory, and the one used to show off for local media has a nameplate calling it Ruby. But despite attempts to humanize the device, it can’t scrub away blood stains or pick up trash.

“Ms. Ruby is great at killing germs, but she’s not a good cleaner,” joked Mark Ruoff, director of environmental services at Palmetto Health Richland. “It kills germs, but the dust would still be there. It would be germ-free dust, though.”

So the cleaning staff still does its work – picking up rooms and scrubbing hard surfaces with standard chemical cleaning products in a seven-step process. In rooms where the most serious bacteria or viruses are suspected, the staff still does another round of scrubbing with Clorox, one of the few proven ways to kill C. diff, Ruoff said.

But in those rooms now, the staff makes sure it finishes off the bad guys by wheeling in the Xenex device. They set it to run for five minutes in the bathroom, then five minutes on each side of the bed.

The disk atop the device’s body rises about three feet, exposing the lights in its neck. The lights pulse a light so powerful that staff members have to leave the room during the operation to avoid possible skin burns. The machine has a motion-detector that cuts it off if someone accidentally wanders into the room.

The UV light bounces off hard surfaces and likely would kill most germs in the room with one good dose. But the neck slowly goes up and back down during the process so the light fires from differently locations and thus hits more spots directly. The machine is moved to three different spots for the same reason.

Dash cautions that washing hands remains the best way to prevent the spread of germs, and the standard cleaning process isn’t going away anytime soon.

But some things are about to change – the factory names, such as Ruby, given to the machines. The hospital is staging a naming contest among its staff. They’ll need six names, but the current first-place suggestion is ideal for a germ-zapping robot – Germinator.

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