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Oklahoma hospitals 'hire' robot staff to help zap germs

Mercy Hospital Oklahoma City is testing out a robot that could help the hospital combat Clostridium Difficile, one of the hardest-to-kill bacteria. St. Anthony Hospital has the same robot and hopes to see similar results.
by Jaclyn Cosgrove Modified: September 29, 2013 at 10:00 pm •  Published: September 29, 2013

“It's a really matter of looking at the amount you spend on infections and the amount you'll spend in the coming years,” she said. “And you have to compare that to saving three to five lives in a year. It's hard thing to put a price on that.”

The Xenex robots are about three feet tall and have a cylinder in the middle that rises when they're in use. The cylinder looks similar to a bug zapper that might sit on someone's back porch to kill pests.

During a five-minute cycle, the machine will send out pulses of high-powered UV light, or UV-C.

Sparks said UV-C is a type of UV ray that's filtered out by the ozone around the earth. UV-C typically bounces off earth, and because of this, bacteria aren't resistant to UV-C and don't have any mechanisms to deal with it, she said.

After the Xenex machine runs, the bacteria absorb the light, which causes errors in their DNA, The single-celled organism can't live past five minutes of absorbing the light from the machine, she said.

“As soon as you've killed c-diff, you've really killed everything else in the room that is a single-celled organism,” Sparks said.

The Xenex machines do not replace staff members at hospitals. Before a Xenex machine can run, a hospital staff member must clean the room. For example, if a patient spills Sprite on the floor, the Xenex machine will not be able to kill the bacteria living beneath that sticky residue.

Dr. Mark Mellow, medical director at Integris Digestive Health Center, said Integris does not have plans to get a Xenex robot at this time.

Mellow helped lead a charge against c-diff at Integris. He and his team put more focus on simple and inexpensive solutions, such as using soap and water to clean hands, rather than antibacterial disinfectant. They also emphasized that doctors should be responsible in how they prescribe antibiotics.

Most cases of c-diff infection occur in patients taking antibiotics, according to the CDC.

Mellow said he was concerned that scientific research hadn't yet shown that devices like the Xenex system were effective in preventing actual c-diff infections. He said a study in the United Kingdom questioned whether the devices were a cost-effective means of fighting health care-associated infections.

“Their bottom line really on all these devices was that since there is still a requirement of significant pre-cleaning before use of these devices and there's limited evidence that they actually prevent c-diff infection spread that, to quote them, they say ‘extensive field trials are necessary to determine their cost effectiveness in a health care setting,'” Mellow said.

by Jaclyn Cosgrove
Medical and Health Reporter
Jaclyn Cosgrove writes about health, public policy and medicine in Oklahoma, among other topics. She is an Oklahoma State University graduate. Jaclyn grew up in the southeast region of the state and enjoys writing about rural Oklahoma. She is...
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