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April 30, 2013

Germ-zapping ‘robots’ combat superbugs

NEW YORK — They sweep. They swab. They sterilize. And still the germs persist.

In U.S. hospitals, an estimated 1 in 20 patients pick up infections they didn’t have when they arrived, some caused by dangerous “superbugs” that are hard to treat.

The rise of these superbugs, along with increased pressure from the government and insurers, is driving hospitals to try all sorts of new approaches to stop their spread, like machines that resemble “Star Wars” robots and emit ultraviolet light or hydrogen peroxide vapors, germ-resistant copper bed rails, call buttons and IV poles, and antimicrobial linens, curtains and paint.

While these products can help get a room clean, their true impact is still debatable. There is no widely-accepted evidence that these inventions have prevented infections or deaths.

Meanwhile, insurers are pushing hospitals to do a better job and the government’s Medicare program has moved to stop paying bills for certain infections caught in the hospital.

“We’re seeing a culture change” in hospitals, said Jennie Mayfield, who tracks infections at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis.

Those hospital infections are tied to an estimated 100,000 deaths each year and add as much as $30 billion a year in medical costs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency last month sounded an alarm about a “nightmare bacteria” resistant to one class of antibiotics. That kind is still rare but showed up last year in at least 200 hospitals.

Hospitals started paying attention to infection control in the late 1880s, when mounting evidence showed unsanitary conditions were hurting patients. Hospital hygiene has been a concern ever since, with a renewed emphasis triggered by the emergence of a nasty strain of intestinal bug called Clostridium difficile.

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