Germ-fighting robots in Fraser Health get more help killing hospital bacteria and viruses

·3 min read
Mobile pieces of equipment such as wheelchairs, incubators and IV poles are placed in the tent-like pods which trap and reflect UV rays to kill off bacteria.  (Fraser Health - image credit)
Mobile pieces of equipment such as wheelchairs, incubators and IV poles are placed in the tent-like pods which trap and reflect UV rays to kill off bacteria. (Fraser Health - image credit)

Germ-fighting robots are getting extra support to fight bacteria in hospitals across the Fraser Health region.

Two tent-like disinfection pods have joined the fleet of 16 robots which use ultraviolet (UV) light to kill viruses and bacteria in patient rooms.

"We really want to use it on … mobility aids, like wheelchairs and walkers, places that the patients touch a lot. And just to give that extra level of disinfection," said Ruth Dueckman, executive director of infection prevention and control with Fraser Health.

Experts say germ-fighting robots have become increasingly popular since the pandemic to help disinfect rooms and prevent hospital infections.

Courtesy Xenex
Courtesy Xenex

During the pandemic, 14 new Ultraviolet Germicidal Irradiation robots were added to hospitals at a cost of $2 million to supplement the original two purchased in 2016. According to Fraser Health, 16 robots logged thousands of hours and disinfected nearly 62,000 rooms across hospitals.

"Our cleaning staff have worked just endless hours to try and keep our facilities and our equipment clean. And it's just a never-ending battle for them," said Dueckman.

Vancouver Coastal Health says it uses UV light robots at 11 sites across four regional hospitals.

"They are primarily used in patient rooms in acute care where individuals have been placed under precaution for certain illnesses which are challenging to eradicate with manual cleaning alone," it said in an email statement to CBC News.

So how does the technology work?

The robots emit short pulses of UV light, damaging the DNA and RNA of harmful pathogens. They are usually placed in rooms for about 20 minutes to disinfect them.

The additional two new collapsible pods attach to the robots, trap UV light, and help disinfect smaller pieces of equipment like wheelchairs and incubators, which are placed inside the tents and are disinfected in five minutes, explains Dueckman.

"It allows us to move small pieces of medical equipment that are, you know, historically kind of difficult to clean, because they've got all kinds of nooks and crannies," said  Dueckman.

She says a study showed the pods reduced bacterial counts by 88 per cent after treatment.

Currently, one of the pods is at Royal Columbian Hospital, and another is at Langley Memorial Hospital. The UV technology is being used in units with COVID patients and other infections including C. difficile, but Dueckman says she hopes to see broader use of the technology.

"It gives us some assurance that we're doing everything we can to keep our sites clean," she said.

Fraser Health
Fraser Health

Highly effective but costly expert says 

UV light is highly effective and a "very potent disinfectant" that leaves no residue compared to other chemicals, says Horacio Bach, clinical assistant professor in the division of infectious diseases at the University of British Columbia's faculty of medicine.

But he says it's also important to be mindful that UV light can deteriorate equipment parts made of plastic, rubber and fabrics.

"For example, a piece of plastic outside and under the sun, you will see that over time start to deteriorate … start to break down."

He says one way to work around that is having hospital equipment made of specific materials such as Teflon and using protecting paints to coat surfaces.

Another challenge to having more germ-fighting robots in hospitals is they can be expensive, says Bach.

"With the pandemic, we were really fortunate that a lot of the foundations contributed funding, as well as some provincial funding," said Dueckman.