Germinator or Bonnie & Clyde? By any name UV device is a strong weapon against hospital infections

CINCINNATI - If you’re driving on I-75 past Tylersville Road, and you happen to see an eerie glow from a window at West Chester Hospital , rest assured: It's latest in infection control at work.

“There are all kinds of nooks and crannies in a hospital that you just can’t get to by doing a good job cleaning,” says hospital infection preventionist Linda Jamison. “So we’re just delighted to have these on board now.”

Inside an empty fourth-floor room at the four-year-old hospital, Jamison gestures to a matched pair of light machines. Each is just shy of five feet tall, about 15 inches around, and 54 pounds mounted on industrial casters. Ryan Holman, the hospital’s environmental services manager, pokes a stylus on a remote control to send a command, turn on the lights, and clean the room.

Forefront of technology

Cincinnati is ahead of the game when it comes to applying new technologies to attack the rate of healthcare-associated infections --ailments that patients can acquire while in a hospital, nursing home or other healthcare facility.

Traditional bleach-based cleanings only go so far to sanitize against bacteria and viruses that cause these infections, since the germs can survive for hours--even days--on hard surfaces counters, phones or handrails.

Once an infection sets in, the effect on the human body can be devastating, even deadly.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about one of every 20 hospitalized patients picks up an infection at a healthcare facility each day. About 99,000 patients die every year from a healthcare-associated infection.

A number of little beasties  are responsible for infections, but of particular concern are the threats that do not succumb to antibiotic treatment, such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, which usually manifests itself as a skin infection, or Clostridium difficile, called C. diff, a bacterium that inflames the colon.

Ohio is one of at least 28 states that require hospitals to report infection rates, and the state maintains a look-up website for consumers.

In Cincinnati, infections have put hospitals on high alert. In 2009, the C. diff rate at The Jewish Hospital-Mercy Health hit a high of 25.27 for every 10,000 patients. Other area hospitals were combating similar problems. They launched task forces, and among the tools now employed at The Jewish Hospital and at others in the area are whole-room UV light generators.

How UV works

In 2011, Mercy Health-Anderson Hospital was the first facility in the area to start using a device called IRiS , manufactured by Infection Prevention Technologies LLC in Auburn Hills, Mich.

Mark Statham, one of the company's founders, got his bachelor’s degree from Miami University and started out as a microbiologist. In the lab, he saw the effectiveness of UV light in disinfecting spaces. Light from a certain portion of the UV spectrum disrupts DNA in bacteria and viruses so they can’t reproduce.

“It cooks the organism from the inside out,” Statham said, “like a hard-boiled egg.”

Other companies make UV lights large enough to disinfect hospital rooms. Statham says his machines have sensors that measure and register how much UV light to discharge in a cleaning session. The machines also remember, through bar coding, when a room was last cleaned and for how long, and who ran the lights.

“If you just have a system that improves the disinfection of the room but doesn’t control for when and where you disinfect, the devices may as well be sitting in a closet,” Statham said. “These are concepts I learned in laboratory science that I wanted to apply to the environmental science of the hospital and improve the quality there.”

Statham found that the machines work better in pairs, spreading more disinfecting light into a room over more exposed surfaces. People cannot be in the room while the machines are running, but they can watch through a window, since glass reflects that spectrum of UV light.

While the units operate, a monitor hangs from the outside door handle; if it moves, the units automatically shut down. The room can be used right after treatment.

"The Germinator" gets results

Mercy Health was among Statham’s first customers for the unit that his company trademarked, The Syndicate. The UV lights at Anderson Hospital achieved impressive results: the rate of C. diff infection dropped 32 percent in the first year. The hospital staff calls the UV light system “the Germinator.”

Mercy then acquired lights for its Clermont Hospital and The Jewish Hospital. Over five months in 2012, Clermont had a 49 percent decrease in patient days and costs connected to infection, and a 37 percent drop in readmissions for patients with C. diff infections, said Nanette Bentley, Mercy Health's director of public relations.

Tri-Health followed suit with units for Bethesda North and Good Samaritan hospitals. Last year, UC Health bought units for UC Medical Center, Daniel Drake Center for Post-Acute Care and West Chester Hospital, which

got its units in late January. Jamison, the infection preventionist, calls them Bonnie and Clyde (pictured below).

The system is expensive, considering the government estimates that treating one person with a healthcare-associated infection can cost up to $25,000, hospitals see it as a worthwhile expense.

Statham’s company offers three systems that run in price from $45,000 to $85,000 to $127,800. He said deals with the Cincinnati hospitals, which were among his first customers, took into account the fact that they provided valuable technical feedback.

Mercy Health continues to invest in UV technology, adding units to Mercy Health-West Hospital where employees began training in February.

At Tri-Health, infection preventionist Carolyn Fiutem said she had “been looking at this technology for about five years,” and was eager to try UV lights. Eighteen months into regular use, Fiutem said Tri-Health has seen a 57 percent drop in C. diff infections.

“It’s one of the best patient safety investments you can use, from the aspect of having the room prepared to receive someone,” she said. Around Tri-Health, the UV lights go by a simple nickname: “the bug zapper.”

Last week, in the patient room at West Chester Hospital, Jamison sizes up the UV light fixtures then shoos out the humans. Outside the room, she seals the door with blue painter’s tape. Holman, the hospital’s environmental services manager, stabs at the remote control.

The units instantly power up, and from the observation window, Jamison watches their blue-white aura blast the room. “Pretty cool, huh?” 

Connect with WCPO Contributor Anne Saker on Twitter: @apsaker .

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