It's a staggering modern-day irony that the most common complication for hospital patients is acquiring an infection during their visit, affecting 1 in 20 patients in the US. It's a problem estimated to cause millions of infections with 100,000 or so leading to death per year and a whopping $45 billion annually in hospital costs. If this isn't bad enough, the tragedies from deadly superbugs within healthcare facilities are on the rise and will likely continue as the last lines of antibiotics fail without any new drugs moving fast enough up the pipeline to help.

Fortunately, an alternative to medication promises to vastly improve the disinfection of hospital rooms, thanks to a UV light-emitting robot from Xenex Healthcare.

Using a pulsed-xenon UV lamp, the portable bot shoots out 120 flashes of light per minute. Each pulse lasts a thousandth of a second each, and a typical treatment runs for 10 to 20 minutes. The UV rays pass through the outer wall of a bacterium and damage its DNA, making it impossible for it to mutate or reproduce. This stops the pathogen from propagating or being harmful.

Additionally, a system of reflectors allows the light to be focused on areas that have high-touch surfaces, such as door handles and light switches. In case someone enters the room when the bot is in operation, a motion detector halts operation to prevent accidental exposure to humans.

Here's the infomercial for the little guy:

Xenex claims that its bot is 20 times more effective at eliminating bacteria than common cleaning procedures used in hospitals, but the real test is how it measures up to bleach, the tried-and-true method for disinfection.

A recent study showed that the Xenex bot is superior to bleach at destroying one of the most concerning pathogens in hospitals, the resilient Clostridium difficile (C. diff) that can survive for months on surfaces. While cleaning with bleach only destroyed 70 percent of the pathogen in rooms, a 15-minute treatment using the pulsed UV treatment eliminated 95 percent, leaving six-times fewer bacteria around. Additionally, a recent investigation produced results consistent with these findings for the common antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

The issue, of course, is cost. At a price of about $80,000 each, a large facility would require two Xenex bots to keep rooms sterilized routinely. While this may seem steep, treatment for a single case of MRSA infection can run $28,000, as CNN reported last year. Other hidden costs, such as training, are minimal. Furthermore, operation of the robots has less environmental impact than discarded containers or the heavy use of disinfectants.

Combined with improved hand-washing and sanitation practices along with recent calls to replace all stainless steel with copper, these bots can help fight hospital-acquired infections without relying on antibiotics, which contributed to these superbugs in the first place.

An increasing number of hospitals are employing the device. The first facility to do so was Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Massachusetts, which had previously reported site-acquired infections of 1 out of every 129 patients. After bringing the Xenex robot to the hospital in 2011, an 82 percent drop was seen with C. diff. alone.

As the fourth leading cause of death in the US, hospital-acquired infections are increasingly been seen as costly on top of being a tragic end for people seeking care. Hopefully, more institutions will implement Xenex bots and the technology can continue to make strides.

To see more action from this bot, check out the piece CNN Money did on it last year:

I've been writing for Singularity Hub since 2011 and have been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. My interests cover digital education, publishing, and media, but I'll always be a chemist at heart.