An ultraviolet light-emitting 5-foot-5 robot is used to disinfect Clinical Center rooms.
Photo: Ernie Branson
“It’s like a tall R2-D2 robot from the Star Wars movies, disinfecting patients’ rooms,” said Rob Mekelburg, chief of the Clinical Center’s materials management and environmental services department. He is referring to the ultraviolet light-emitting disinfection robot that the CC now uses to minimize the spread of multidrug-resistant bacteria.
Over time, bacteria become resistant to antibiotics intended to kill them. Eventually, a few stragglers that survived a course of antibiotics give rise to an entire race that can withstand treatments that eliminated most of their forbears. In fact, some kinds of resistant bacteria are now common in hospitals, where they pose a threat to patients with weakened immune systems.
As a safeguard against this scenario, the CC has begun using the robot to disinfect hospital rooms that may harbor such organisms.
“Disinfecting the environment is important in reducing health care-associated infections,” said Amanda Ramsburg, an infection control specialist in the CC’s Hospital Epidemiology Service. “The environment can play a significant role in germ transmission.”
The Clinical Center uses a 2-step process to disinfect rooms, said Mekelburg. First, a technician uses a disinfectant solution to wipe down all surfaces a patient touches. Then, the robot is placed in the center of the room, any drawers are pulled open and any equipment in the room is positioned for maximum exposure to UV light.
Once it’s on, the robot detects the size and reflectivity of the room, Mekelburg said. Based on this scan, the robot delivers the correct dose and duration of UV light needed to sterilize the room. The UV light remains on anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the room and its contents. Because UV light can damage eyes and skin, the robot shuts off automatically if someone enters the room.
The robot, which stands 5’ 5”, does not replace the need to manually clean, said Ramsburg. Staff must clean any visible dirt or bodily fluids. Then the robot goes to work.
Use of the robot is part of a larger strategy to prevent health care-associated infections at the CC, said Ramsburg. After the Klebsiella pneumoniae carbapenemase (KPC) outbreak in 2011, the hospital improved infection control policies to prevent future outbreaks.
In addition to disinfecting rooms, staff screens every inpatient on admission to the CC for colonization of certain multidrug-resistant bacteria. Hospital staff and patients are required to perform hand hygiene frequently.
“We can’t yet say definitively if the robot has had an effect,” said Ramsburg. “But what we do know is that since improving our infection control practices, including environmental disinfection, we have not had transmission of the outbreak organism.”