Shining the Light

Hospitals go high-tech in war on germs

EXTRA ASSURANCE: Lee Health’s acquired infection rate has dropped with UV-C use, says Mary Beth Saunders, an infectious disease specialist with the local hospital system. NCH Healthcare System also uses UV light from germ-zapping robots.

It might sound alarmist, but it’s unfortunately true: What you don’t see can kill you. COVID-19 has captured the headlines for more than a year now, but long before people feared the spiky protein, infectious disease specialists already were focused on what we don’t see. Superbugs, difficult-to-treat Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and other infections acquired during a hospital stay cost health care providers more than $50 billion annually. That’s why health care facilities in and around the Paradise Coast are, quite literally, shining a new light on germs.

Lee Health has used ultraviolet light technology for more than five years in terminal cleanings of rooms, operating suites and other patient areas. “We like this technology, because we feel like it gives us that extra ability to get into those small areas that could potentially have been missed or any areas that are not necessarily seen by the naked eye,” says Mary Saunders, an infectious disease specialist with Lee Health, noting that the hospital’s acquired infection rate has dropped with UV-C use. “It’s an extra assurance that we’re doing the best job we can to keep our patients safe.”

The technology doesn’t initially kill germs, but they’re as good as dead once they see the UV-C light.

Since UV-C rays are blocked by the ozone layer, microorganisms have not developed a natural defense against UV-C energy. When the DNA of a microorganism absorbs UV-C energy, molecular instability occurs, resulting in the disruption of the DNA sequence. This renders the cell unable to grow or reproduce. Without the ability to reproduce, the cell cannot infect—and it rapidly dies. That includes COVID-19.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates one in 31 hospital patients has at least one hospital-related infection. Nearly half a million Americans annually suffer from C. diff colitis—often induced by antibiotic use—during hospitalization, with symptoms ranging from diarrhea to life-threatening colon inflammation. The CDC estimates 15,000 yearly deaths are directly attributed to the infection. Studies have shown that hospitals spend nearly $5 billion a year in excess health care costs due to C. diff alone, and MRSA contributes another 1.2 million infections and $10 billion in cost.

NCH Healthcare System began using similar technology from Xenex, delivered through portable robots. Troy Munn, chief development officer, said the hospital used some of the nearly $1.89 million in community donations to purchase 10 of the robots, as well as other supplies to fight infection. “We are truly grateful for how the community stepped up to support NCH, our frontline health care professionals and our patients,” Munn says. “The COVID-19 pandemic was truly unprecedented, and to have this added level of protection for our community contributed significantly to the exceptional outcomes NCH experienced. The robots became critical frontline team members, which is one of the reasons why hospitals give them actual names.”

Now robots such as Pretty Penny, Donnabot, GIZMO and Good JuJu light up NCH rooms after patients are discharged to clamp down on infection. Each robot comes with a $100,000 price tag. Munn said 29 Advanced Ultra-Violet System UV Boxes were also purchased for portable germ-zapping of staff personal items such as ID badges, pagers and stethoscopes.

Georgine Kruedelbach, NCH director of infection prevention and performance improvement, said NCH is utilizing the devices in its two main hospitals. Units are also at NCH Healthcare Northeast and NCH Healthcare Bonita freestanding Emergency Department locations, and the Landmark Creekside building. Kruedelbach said that during the early months of the pandemic, when the availability of respirators was in doubt, disinfection teams used the Xenex devices to reprocess and disinfect thousands of respirators, ensuring an adequate supply for staff.

Photos courtesy of Xenex Disinfection Services, Lee Health