Robots join Stanford Hospital staff

The Stanford Hospital staff was recently trained to manage the two unusually metallic members that joined the housekeeping team in a soft-launch this month: Frost and Dazzler.

The two robots, similar in appearance to Star Wars’ R2-D2, cost $80,000 each. They make rounds through rooms that have housed patients with particularly contagious or drug-resistant conditions to ensure that the next patient enters a room free of harmful germs.

The robots are also used daily in rooms that house patients on “contact precaution”– those who are extremely susceptible to infection– and disinfect operating rooms at night.

“This product was really of interest to us, particularly because our patients are really the sickest of the sick,” said Sasha Madison, manager of infection prevention and control at Stanford Hospital. “Also, it really goes along with Stanford’s policy of green control.”

Manufactured and distributed by Xenex, a firm that produces UV-disinfection systems, the robots use a specialized pulsing UV light to disrupt the nucleic acids in microorganisms.

The Stanford Hospital is the only hospital in Northern California to have put the Xenex robots to use, though the robots have also been employed in Southern California and at select hospitals across the country including the Louisiana Continuing Care Hospital, Doylestown Hospital and Westchester Medical Center.

According to Xenex’s website, the pulsing light prevents dangerous cells from replicating and repairing themselves, and also causes these cells to mutate and die. The robot’s light cycle lasts a total of just five minutes.

“We wanted something that was efficient, because we get a lot of patients in here– about 12 to 15 every day,” Madison said. “ We can’t afford for a room to be unavailable for very long.”

While Frost and Dazzler can easily disinfect all the patient rooms, Housekeeping Department Director Brad Igler said he has considered purchasing another Xenex robot to work in operating rooms used for surgery.

“It’s just so great for the patients, knowing that the room has been UV-disinfected and has that extra layer of security,” Igler said.

Although less than a month has passed since the robots were officially added to the disinfecting procedure, the few tests that have been carried out since then have proven the machines to be very effective.

“There’s one hospital that did a test and it showed that it decreased the rate of infection by 67 percent,” Igler said, referring to the infection rates due to C-DIFF and MRSA microorganisms.

Although this is the first time robots have been used to disinfect rooms at the Stanford Hospital, mechanized helpers have become prevalent in hospitals around the country to help doctors treat and care for patients, and some forms of assistive technology now play fundamental roles during surgery.

While some robot enthusiasts have predicted that hospitals will soon be heavily populated with largely autonomous robots, Igler expressed certainty that humans will be involved in the disinfecting stage of caring for patients for the foreseeable future.

“The person is very important in the cleaning process,” Igler said. “It would take such sophistication for a machine to do the same thing. I don’t see it happening anytime in the near future.”

Madison agreed, emphasizing that a human element is almost always necessary in the disinfecting stage of the patient care process.

“Someone always needs to take off the organic material first,” she said. “The housekeepers will open the drawers and disinfect all the surfaces.”

Even after the robots sweep through the rooms, the hospital housekeepers have continued their normal procedure of cleaning and disinfecting all surfaces with bleach and germicidal solutions.

“I think it’s important to note that these do not replace the work that the housekeeper does,” Madison said. “It’s in addition to. It’s above and beyond.”

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