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Germ-zapping ‘robots’: Hospitals combat superbugs

  • Using ultraviolet light, a machine disinfects a hospital room at the Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, N.Y., Wednesday, March 20, 2013. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

    Using ultraviolet light, a machine disinfects a hospital room at the Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, N.Y., Wednesday, March 20, 2013. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

  • Michael Claes, 62, who contracted a superbug while in the hospital, poses for a photograph while recovering at home in New York, Monday, April 8, 2013. Claes caught a bad case of a diarrheal illness caused by Clostridium dificile, while he was a kidney patient last fall at New York City's Lenox Hill Hospital. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

    Michael Claes, 62, who contracted a superbug while in the hospital, poses for a photograph while recovering at home in New York, Monday, April 8, 2013. Claes caught a bad case of a diarrheal illness caused by Clostridium dificile, while he was a kidney patient last fall at New York City's Lenox Hill Hospital. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

  • Michael Claes, 62, who contracted a superbug while in the hospital, shows a bottle of one of his daily medications on Monday, April 8, 2013 as he recovers at home in New York. Claes caught a bad case of a diarrheal illness caused by Clostridium dificile, while he was a kidney patient at New York City's Lenox Hill Hospital in fall 2012. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

    Michael Claes, 62, who contracted a superbug while in the hospital, shows a bottle of one of his daily medications on Monday, April 8, 2013 as he recovers at home in New York. Claes caught a bad case of a diarrheal illness caused by Clostridium dificile, while he was a kidney patient at New York City's Lenox Hill Hospital in fall 2012. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

  • Using ultraviolet light, a machine disinfects a hospital room at the Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, N.Y., Wednesday, March 20, 2013. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

    Using ultraviolet light, a machine disinfects a hospital room at the Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, N.Y., Wednesday, March 20, 2013. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

  • Michael Claes, 62, who contracted a superbug while in the hospital, sits beside a container of his daily medications on Monday, April 8, 2013 as he recovers at home in New York. Claes caught a bad case of a diarrheal illness caused by Clostridium dificile, while he was a kidney patient at New York City's Lenox Hill Hospital in fall 2012. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

    Michael Claes, 62, who contracted a superbug while in the hospital, sits beside a container of his daily medications on Monday, April 8, 2013 as he recovers at home in New York. Claes caught a bad case of a diarrheal illness caused by Clostridium dificile, while he was a kidney patient at New York City's Lenox Hill Hospital in fall 2012. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

  • Using ultraviolet light, a machine disinfects a hospital room at the Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, N.Y., Wednesday, March 20, 2013. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
  • Michael Claes, 62, who contracted a superbug while in the hospital, poses for a photograph while recovering at home in New York, Monday, April 8, 2013. Claes caught a bad case of a diarrheal illness caused by Clostridium dificile, while he was a kidney patient last fall at New York City's Lenox Hill Hospital. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
  • Michael Claes, 62, who contracted a superbug while in the hospital, shows a bottle of one of his daily medications on Monday, April 8, 2013 as he recovers at home in New York. Claes caught a bad case of a diarrheal illness caused by Clostridium dificile, while he was a kidney patient at New York City's Lenox Hill Hospital in fall 2012. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
  • Using ultraviolet light, a machine disinfects a hospital room at the Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, N.Y., Wednesday, March 20, 2013. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
  • Michael Claes, 62, who contracted a superbug while in the hospital, sits beside a container of his daily medications on Monday, April 8, 2013 as he recovers at home in New York. Claes caught a bad case of a diarrheal illness caused by Clostridium dificile, while he was a kidney patient at New York City's Lenox Hill Hospital in fall 2012. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

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. While these products can help get a room clean, their true impact is still debatable. There is no widely accepted evidence that they have prevented infections or deaths.

Meanwhile, 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. “We’re seeing a culture change” in hospitals, said Jennie Mayfield, who tracks infections at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis.

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.

Hospitals started paying attention to infection control in the late 1880s, when mounting evidence showed unsanitary conditions were hurting patients. Hospital hygiene has been a concern ever since, with a renewed emphasis 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. That’s been the catalyst for the growing focus on infection control, said Mayfield, who is also president-elect of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology.

C-diff is easier to treat than some other hospital superbugs, like methicillin-resistant staph, or MRSA, but it’s particularly 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.

Michael Claes developed a bad case of C-diff while he was a kidney patient last fall at New York City’s Lenox Hill Hospital. He and his doctor believe he caught it at the hospital. Claes praised his overall care but felt the hospital’s room cleaning and infection control was less than perfect. “I would use the word ‘perfunctory,’ ” he said.

Lenox Hill spokeswoman Ann Silverman disputed that characterization, noting hospital workers are making efforts that patients often can’t see, like using hand cleanser dispensers in hallways. She ticked off a list of measures used to prevent the spread of germs. The hospital’s C-diff infection rate is lower than the state average, she said.

Enter companies like Xenex Healthcare Services, a San Antonio company that makes a portable, $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 Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, N.Y.

The market niche is expected to grow from $30 million to $80 million in the next three years, according to Frost & Sullivan, a market research firm.

Mark Stibich, Xenex’s chief scientific officer, said client hospitals sometimes call them robots and report improved satisfaction scores from patients who seem impressed that the medical center is trotting out that kind of technology.

At Cooley Dickinson Hospital, a 140-bed facility in Northampton, Mass., the staff calls their machines Thing One, Thing Two, Thing Three and Thing Four, borrowing from the children’s book The Cat in the Hat. But while the things in the Dr. Seuss tale were house-wrecking imps, Cooley Dickinson officials said the ultraviolet has done a terrific job at cleaning their hospital of the difficult C-diff.

“We did all the recommended things. We used bleach. We monitored the quality of cleaning,” but C-diff rates wouldn’t budge, said nurse Linda Riley, who’s in charge of infection prevention at Cooley Dickinson.

A small observational study at the hospital showed C-diff infection rates fell by half and C-diff deaths fell from 14 to 2 during the last two years, compared with the two years before the machines.

Some experts say there’s not enough evidence to show the machines are worth it. No national study has shown that these products have led to reduced deaths or infection rates, noted Dr. Clifford McDonald of the CDC. His point: It only takes a minute for a nurse or visitor with dirty hands to walk into a room, touch a vulnerable patient with germy hands, and undo the benefits of a recent space-age cleaning.

“Environments get dirty again,” McDonald said.

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