by Barrett Seaman –
Let’s be clear: these robots are a force for good. Phelps Memorial Hospital in Sleepy Hollow, now a part of the Northwell Health System, has two of them. They’ve been busy zapping microorganisms since early May.
When idle, the LightStrike™ robot from Xenex Disinfection Services LLC looks a bit like R2D2 from Star Wars. When it’s frying germs with high-intensity ultraviolet rays emanating from its extended “neck,” it has a bit of an ET thing going for it.
For all the good they do, hospitals are havens for germs, largely because they handle a lot of sick people. When a patient is discharged or an operation completed, members of the hospital’s housekeeping staff move in and scrub every nook and cranny with disinfectants before the next patient arrives. But it’s hard to get them all. As a result, patients sometimes get infected with C-diff (Clostridium difficile), a hard-to-shake bug that plays havoc with the colon—especially in patients on antibiotics. Other germs that plague hospitals include a variety of antibiotic-resistant Staph infections.
Unlike robots in some other industries, these machines are not stealing human jobs. Housekeeping staffers still go into recently vacated rooms, strip them of linens and scrub them down with disinfectant. But then LightStrike moves in for the kill. The plastic dome that sits on top of the machine rises up about two feet on its tubular glass neck, which then begins to send out streams of UV rays. If gazed upon directly, the intense rays can damage one’s eyes. Hence a pair of motion detectors that come as attachments are deployed both inside and outside a room as it’s being swept. If anybody inadvertently enters while the sweep is going on, the robot shuts down. Passers-by might think a small disco club had opened in the room as the pulsating rays fire into corners and under the bed and equipment. In a few minutes, the job is done. An onboard computer keeps a record of which rooms have been swept, at what time and under whose control.
The big question is how effective these new mechanized killers—each of which costs about $100,000—will be.
“We’ve started to see our own numbers go down,” said Antonio Acosta, Assistant Director of Environmental Services at the hospital. He and other Phelps administrators are hoping its robots will achieve the kinds of reductions in infections that have saved other hospitals hundreds of thousands in treating Hospital-Acquired Infections (HAIs). Peer-reviewed studies quoted by the robots’ manufacturers indicate dramatic reduction in such infections.
One report from Lowell General Hospital in Massachusetts claimed a 46% reduction in Surgical Site Infections that saved the hospital nearly $500,000.