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In response to COVID-19, companies manufacture robots that would complement the cleaning and disinfection work done by environmental services teams in hospitals. Might the machines also one day take their jobs?
The robots would not come to take the jobs of environmental services (EVS) teams, but rather help those workers disinfect hospital surfaces. At least for now, according to a study in the journal Antimicrobial Resistance & Infection Control (and reprinted in the British journal BioMed Central).
“Presently, disinfection robots do not replace routine (manual) cleaning but may complement it,” says the study by investigators with several European hospital systems, foremost the Medical University of Vienna. “They might in the future provide validated, reproducible and documented disinfection processes. Further technical developments and clinical trials in a variety of hospitals are warranted to overcome the current limitations and to find ways to integrate this novel technology into the hospitals of today and the future.”
The robots seem to offer an opportunity to disinfect hospital rooms quickly and might, in the long run, lead to cost savings by “reducing cleaning staff.” Such a development would not only affect EVS teams but also the infection preventionists (IPs) who often play a major part in training those teams, as Infection Control Today® pointed out in its January/February issue.
And though the pandemic has spurred companies with an entrepreneurial bent to develop the robots, “there is little information about their operational details,” the study states. Investigators note that hospital administrators increasingly see the potential of robots—such as the ones manufactured by UVD Robots ApS, Lumalier, or RMiRob—for disinfecting surfaces in a cost-effective manner. The study defines robots as machines programmed to perform tasks that, up until now, have been done by humans.
One of the limitations of using robots involves turnover; the need to clean and disinfect a hospital room quickly after one patient vacates and the next occupies. (That need is especially urgent during COVID-19 surges.) The robots add an extra layer of work that takes extra time. In addition, while the robots emit an ultra-violet (UV) wavelength of 254 nm (UV-C) that works as a virucidal, bactericidal, sporicidal, and fungicidal, they cannot remove often pathogen-laden debris.
“Thus, manual cleaning is a prerequisite for the use of UVC disinfection, which needs staff and additional time,” the study states. And while the robots may eventually take EVS jobs they may also add jobs because “robots need an expert supervisor for setting and overseeing the program, and to reset after encountering unforeseen obstacles. Using a disinfection robot like a vacuum cleaner, in addition to routine measures adds work instead of exploiting its full potential.”
In addition, hospitals are built to enhance human traffic, not robot maneuverability. Ideally, the robots would know when to come and go and which rooms need them, and which don’t, and would also know when to turn off the UV light (in instances when a person may be standing in the way). The study states that “unplanned cluttering of patient rooms and wards … limits robots navigating in space and reaching surfaces to be disinfected…. Planners and future architects should integrate robotic disinfection in their structural design.”
Still, the technology is worth refining. Investigators note that the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pushes the boundaries of scientific and medical innovation, and interest in hospital-cleaning robots that utilize UV light springs from that disease, as well.
The study states that the benefits of refining and utilizing the technology include:
But there’s still a long way to go until the robots can be fully integrated into hospital systems. The technology needs to advance to a point where the robots “know” exactly the right amount of UV disinfection to apply. “Further technical developments and clinical trials in a variety of hospitals are warranted to overcome the current limitations and to find ways to integrate this novel technology into the hospitals of to-day and the future,” the study states.
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