UM initiative brings germ-zapping robots to Detroit hospitals

Kimberly Brink, graduate student in developmental psychology, presents the robot Nao she used for research at the Living Lab Symposium in East Hall on March 20, 2016. Now, researchers are bringing similar robotic technology to Detroit hospitals.

Kimberly Brink, graduate student in developmental psychology, presents the robot Nao she used for research at the Living Lab Symposium in East Hall on March 20, 2016. Now, researchers are bringing similar robotic technology to Detroit hospitals. Buy this photo
Amelia Cacchione/Daily

 

Tuesday, January 24, 2017 - 7:44pm

A new research initiative at the University of Michigan will use germ-zapping robots to counter infectious, antibiotic-resistant bacteria in Detroit hospitals.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, antibiotic-resistant bacteria pose a fatal threat to hospital patients, as one in seven catheter- and surgery-related health care-associated infections are caused by these bacteria in acute-care hospitals.

The germ-zapping robots have long been supported to be effective countermeasures of the spread of these bacteria. Each unit uses pulsed xenon UV light to kill the bacteria.

Keith Kaye, director of clinical research in the Michigan Medicine Division of Infectious Diseases, will lead a team in monitoring the results of using the robots. Using a grant from the National Institutes of Health’s Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality for the study — which is slated to cost $2 million — the team will work with Wayne State University and the Detroit Medical Center to conduct the experiment in two hospitals.

Kaye discussed the gravity of the presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in hospital environments.

“We always think of hand-washing and how germs can be moved by the hands of health care workers,” he said. “But the environment the patients are in, whether it's the bedrails or the telephone, also have organisms contaminating their surfaces pretty frequently and living for long periods of time.”

Hospital cleaning has always been a crucial process in preventing health care-associated infections, Kaye said. When a patient is discharged from a hospital, a form of intensive cleaning called terminal cleaning is done to accommodate the next patient.

Terminal cleaning, while effective, has its limits in preventing antibiotic-resistant organisms from causing infections. C. difficile, for example, is a bacterium that causes swelling and irritation in the colon. Terminal cleaning cannot kill this bacterium because of its resistance to antibiotics.

“In a scenario where a patient in a hospital has C. diff and is then discharged from a room, the next patient to go to that room has a much higher risk of getting C. diff than someone admitted into a different patient room,” Kaye said. “So, even with good cleaning, there’s a question of whether adding more intensive disinfection for standard cleaning would reduce the risk of patients developing infections in the hospital.”

Kaye explained that the robots will be used with terminal cleaning in hospital rooms to determine their effectiveness against the infections.

The robots emit UV light, which can be harmful to human eyes, skin and immune systems. However, they will have a function that disables these harmful lights in the presence of humans.

“The robots will have motion sensor that will turn it off if it detects motion in the room,” Kaye said. “So they are pretty much fail-proof.”

Germ-zapping robots have been used in other hospitals to counter the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Oryan Henig, a research fellow who worked on the study under the mentorship of Kaye, said the uniqueness of this study came from its controlled design.

“It’s a different epidemiology of patients and microbiology, and a strong setting of infection control system that is required to make such a study feasible,” Henig said.

The study, which will span over two years, will use the actual germ-zapping in one of the two Detroit hospitals and a placebo in the other to overcome bias and to evaluate the effect of the robots.

“We’ll essentially be comparing terminal cleaning to terminal cleaning with the germ-zapping robots,” Kaye said.