published Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

Chattanooga's Erlanger gets new bacteria fighting Xenen UV robot (with video)

Erlanger using new germ-destroying robot
Erlanger Health System announced the addition of a new team member Wednesday. Standing a little more than 3 feet tall, the Xenex germ-destroying robot may garner more comparisons to Star Wars R2-D2, than a new-age cleaning system. But the $80,000 robot uses a UV-C light more powerful than the Sun to kill harmful bacteria and stop the spread of viruses in hospital rooms. The machine will be used in addition to standard chemical cleaning processes at Erlanger.
The Xenex machine pulses UV lights Wednesday during a germ-killing demonstration of the machine at Erlanger.
The Xenex machine pulses UV lights Wednesday during a germ-killing demonstration of the machine at Erlanger.
Photo by Angela Lewis.

How much it costs: $80,000 per unit*; $3 per room to disinfect

How long it takes: 5-10 minutes

How effective it is: 20 times more than manual chemical cleaning; 67 percent decrease in C. diff infections

Data from Xenex Disinfection Services news release documents

* According to Erlanger officials

We're one step closer to living like the Jetsons.

A robot on wheels, minus a continually grumpy disposition, has gone to work at Erlanger hospital disinfecting rooms and operation suites.

And so far, The Germinator is wowing.

That's the name Steve Wheeler, director of environmental services at Erlanger hospital, is lobbying to give the $80,000 germ-annihilating robot the hospital just acquired. Hospital staff members are currently voting for a name to give the machine.

Erlanger's new robot is short, cylindrical and rolls on wheels. It's drawing comparisons to Luke Skywalker's droid companion R2-D2. Upon activation, a capped stem rises from the robot's body and pulses an intense purple light throughout a room. The high-frequency, high-energy light impacts germs and physically alters them, leading to their death.

"We're excited about the technology, and we're happy the robot is here," Wheeler said at a Wednesday news conference where the machine went on display.

Research to develop the robot began in 2008, and it has been on the market since 2012, said Rachael Sparks, technical director with maker Xenex. Erlanger is the only Chattanooga hospital using the robot and the second Tennessee hospital to do so.

"Last insurance policy"

Erlanger CEO and President Kevin Spiegel, Xenex officials, hospital residents and staff and media crammed around a small room to see the robot in action.

Dennis Terry, Erlanger floor technician, is one of two licensed robot users right now at the hospital, and he was Wednesday's operator.

For a handful of minutes, a bright purple light pulsed with a faint tick, disinfecting a children's ward room.

Sparks said the UV-C light the robot emits is effective against single-cell organisms, staph infection bacteria and Clostridium difficile (C. diff) endospores, all of which can land a person in seriously ill health for weeks.

Sparks said those bacteria are known to hang around hospitals, and they can linger on surfaces up to four months.

"That's the kind of thing that's scary and that you can't see," she said. "This is Erlanger's last insurance policy [in fighting infection]."

Sparks said a C. diff infection can cost $3,500 per individual episode to treat.

More to come

Spiegel, at Erlanger since April, said Wednesday he hopes to have robots to disinfect every patient and operating room at the hospital eventually. The hospital has been using the current machine for about a week already.

Spiegel called the robot "just another example of how we implement the technology of patient safety at Erlanger."

He said personnel numbers will not be affected by the rising robot tide. At the end of the day, someone still has to wipe things down and mop.

The robot is just a supplement to the cleaning that human crews already do at the hospital.

It's the extra mile, Sparks said after the demonstration. She said the robot provides a little more peace of mind.

"It's knowing your patient's room is safer," she said.

Contact staff writer Alex Green at or 423-757-6731.

about Alex Green...

Alex Green joined the Times Free Press staff full-time in January 2014 after completing the paper's six-month, general assignment reporter internship. Alex grew up in Dayton, Tenn., which is also where he studied journalism at Bryan College. He graduated from Rhea County High School in 2008. During college, Alex covered the city of Graysville and the town of Spring City for The Herald-News. As editor-in-chief of Bryan College's student news group, Triangle, Alex reported on ...

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