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R2D2-Like Robot Joins Battle Against Hospital Infections

BJ Austin

The Centers for Disease Control says one of every 20 patients gets an infection during a hospital stay.  In Fort Worth, a hospital is fighting that problem with an ultraviolet light machine that looks like one of Luke Skywalker’s sidekicks.  

R2D2, the lovable little ‘droid’ from Star Wars helped his colleagues out of many a jam, keeping them safe with his special digital talents. (nat) At Texas Health Resources Southwest Fort Worth, a small, boxy machine with a round head works daily in the operating rooms, using ultraviolet light to kill potentially dangerous microbes.

“We put this in the room, close the door and it gives a pulsated ultraviolet light that actually essentially ruptures the bacteria and viruses and kills them on the spot,” Kathy Rhodes, infection prevention coordinator said.

She says the hospital bought the $82,000 Xenex machine a year ago.

“There was a hospital down in Houston that was using it,” Rhodes said.  “And it was the first in Texas. We were the first in North Texas.”

See theXenex ultraviolet machinein action.

The 3-foot tall machine raises its round head about two feet as it turns 360 degrees emitting the pulses of UV light: doing what’s called environmental cleaning.

“It’s your walls, your floor, your ceiling, your OR lights,” Rhodes explained. “It’s the equipment that stays in the room like your radiology equipment, your IV poles and things like that that actually stay there. And you can see, looking at our equipment you can see how many little gadgets and notches and little tiny crevices there are.”

Rhodes says during the last six months of 2012, the hospital saw zero hip and colon surgery-related infections, and there was a decline in the six other categories monitored, too. She calls that good progress and says and the UV disinfecting techno droid was an important part of it.

Hospital or healthcare associated infections aren’t just in operating rooms. They’re in patient rooms, too. The Centers for Disease Control estimates more than 2 million people in the US each year get an infection while in the hospital, adding an estimated $15,000 per patient for treatment.

Dr. Pranavi Sreeramoju at Parkland says a lot of things that can cause an infection.

“It could be a bacteria. It could be a virus. It could be a parasite. It could be a fungus,” Dr. Sreeramoju listed.

The most common infections are bloodstream or so-called central line infections; ventilator-related pneumonia; urinary tract and surgical site infections.  At first they come on like any other infection.

The doctor says what keeps her up at night is thinking about the antibiotic resistant infections, like MRSA, and bacteria called BRE and CRE. She says there are only very limited ways to treat those.

And Kathy Rhodes says those bugs can be transmitted from patient to patient. That’s why she’s asking for a second ultraviolet machine so patient rooms can be routinely disinfected, not just the special cases they do now.

“I think it’s out there. It’s gaining momentum in the community,” Rhodes said. “I think we’re going to start seeing more and more of these in use”.

In fact, Parkland recently got one of the little cleaners. In Tarrant County, JPS Hospital just completed a study of ultraviolet in the ICU.  Officials found a significant decrease in bacteria on surfaces; which means that disinfecting droid might have a pretty good light saber.

Former KERA reporter BJ Austin spent more than 25 years in broadcast journalism, anchoring and reporting in Atlanta, New York, New Orleans and Dallas. Along the way, she covered Atlanta City Hall, the Georgia Legislature and the corruption trials of Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards.