LightStrike Germ-Zapping Robot named Eden.
Xenex's robots emit light that dismantles organisms' DNA and disinfects hospital rooms. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

However sterile they might seem, hospital rooms are often crawling with pathogens. One in 31 patients leaves with a hospital-acquired infection, such as urinary tract or bloodstream infections, resulting in thousands of deaths annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But a San Antonio-based company says it has found a solution: 3-foot-tall robots that emit ultraviolet light to disinfect patient and operating rooms.

Founded in 2011, Xenex says it hopes to bring its UV-emitting robots to every hospital. Its LightStrike Germ-Zapping robots are disinfecting patient rooms in more than 450 hospitals throughout the U.S., including the Mayo Clinic and MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Studies have found patient rooms the robots have disinfected are 22 times cleaner than those that have been cleaned by humans, and Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans found Xenex’s robots helped reduce its infection rates by 49 percent.

Locally, the University Health System has six Xenex robots, five at University Hospital and one at its Robert B. Green Campus downtown.

“I’d prefer to be in a hospital bed I know has not only been cleaned by an environmental services worker, but also a Xenex robot,” said Dr. Jason Bowling, hospital epidemiologist at UHS. “It’s an added layer of security.”

Disinfection cycles can take anywhere from two to 20 minutes per patient room.

The logistical challenge of turning over patient beds in time to accommodate new ones is perhaps the greatest barrier to more widespread adoption across the health care industry, Bowling said. The hospital also pays monthly to lease the robots, but UHS’s return on investment – reducing its hospital-acquired infection rate – makes up for it, he said.

Although more than 25 peer-reviewed studies have affirmed the efficacy of Xenex’s robots, the industry can be averse to change, Bowling said.

“The health care industry is fairly conservative before adopting new practices,” he said. “What they want to see is lots of evidence. Sometimes even with lots of evidence there can be a hesitance to adopt new technologies.”

In addition to UHS, the robots are in use locally at Audie L. Murphy Memorial VA Hospital, University Health System, Brooke Army Medical Center, and Baptist Medical Center. San Antonio medical facilities that have not adopted UV disinfection did not respond to requests for comment.

Xenex envisions a world in which disinfecting robots are a universal presence in medical facilities, a compulsory piece of equipment to wipe out pathogens after patients are treated.

Morris Miller, a Rackspace co-founder who became a Xenex investor and its CEO in 2012, predicts that a governing body eventually will make ultraviolet disinfection standard throughout the U.S. health care system.

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, an agency under the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, is entering the second year of a double-blind, crossover study to determine whether UV disinfection reduces the risk of exposure to infection. The multimillion-dollar study will conclude in a year, Miller said.

“Hopefully that will once and for all show that using the robot reduces the pathogens in the environment and, as a result of that pathogen reduction, the hospitals see infection rate reductions,” he said.

The starting price for a LightStrike Germ-Zapping robot is $125,000, but Xenex provides discounts when hospitals purchase them in larger quantities. UHS leases its robots. Leasing costs depend on the number of robots and the length of the contract, said Melinda Hart, a Xenex spokeswoman.

Preventing three to four infections pays for the cost of the robots, Hart said. UV disinfection removes dangerous pathogens such as Clostridium difficile, or C. Diff.

The bacteria cause inflammation of the colon. It claims the lives of nearly 30,000 people each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Miller said cleaning patient rooms well enough to significantly reduce the risk of infection is an impossible task for hospital staff.

“I can look at the employees and say on a daily basis the hospitals that are using this are helping prevent 200 infections a day and as many as 10 lives a day are being saved now as a result of the use of these Xenex robots,” he said. “That is something worth doing.”

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez was a columnist, former editor and reporter at the San Antonio Report.