This month, the CDC has been sounding the alarm about the rise of a rare, potentially deadly superbug that is resistant to last-resort antibiotics. According to the agency, a recent jump in the recorded incidences of carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE) means that health officials need to be on high alert, since the “nightmare bacteria” represents one of the biggest threats to patient safety in hospitals across the country. But even though antibiotics can’t help contain the spread of CRE, another type of advanced technology can: Superbug-killing robots.
As drug-resistant bacteria become an increasing problem for health care settings, hospitals are looking toward innovative prevention methods. Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore began using robots — each about the size of a washing machine — to kill superbugs by first spraying a toxic hydrogen peroxide mist into a sealed hospital room, and then following up with a vapor that makes the air safe for humans to breathe. Thanks to the robot technology, Johns Hopkins recently reported a sharp 64 percent drop in the number of untreatable infections at its hospital.
About 24 other hospitals around the country have their own hydrogen-spraying robots. But that’s not the only way robots can help hospitals stay superbug-free. More than 100 hospitals now use robots that can disinfect hospital rooms in just 10 minutes by emitting powerful beams of ultraviolent light to zap the bacteria. Unfortunately, germ-zapping robots don’t come cheap: The ultraviolent versions can cost as much as $10,000 apiece.
Since robots are about 20 times more effective than the typical hospital sanitation methods, however, that could be a valuable investment. And especially now that CDC officials are warning that CRE represents a particularly troubling threat with a high rate of mortality, hospitals may want to pursue the most advanced technologies available to slow the superbug’s spread. Perhaps most problematically, CRE could help hasten the rise of other drug-resistant diseases, which is already a significant global health problem — but maybe not if the robots get to them first.