Study: Robots Not Replacing Humans for Hospital Disinfecting—Yet

By: Fran Kritz

April 21, 2021

Categories: AAMI News, Sterilization

A robot designed for disinfecting surfaces using UV-C radiationA robot designed for disinfecting surfaces using UV-C radiation

A study published in the journal Antimicrobial Resistance & Infection Control found that while speculation abounds that disinfecting robots could supplant humans in hospitals, the technology still has a long way to go.

“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,” wrote the study authors in the journal.

Disinfecting robots “offer reproducibility by recording automatically the operation parameters of the disinfection process and by this, can provide quality assurance.” Therefore, automated disinfection could allow the validation of the disinfection process with reproducible and documented disinfection results.

The authors said the most widely applied robot-disinfecting technology focus on surface disinfection by applying ultraviolet (UV)-C radiation, but a key limitation is “shadowing” lack of disinfecting by the robots due to obstruction or inaccessibility. That could include a bed or table against a wall, for example.,

Manual cleaning has limitations as well, including the quality of local protocols, training, understanding, renewal, and staff turnover of cleaning staff, as well as the control and the inspection of their performance.

The authors say for now disinfection robots have to be seen “as a promising tool for surface decontamination in the hospital already today, but with even greater potential tomorrow.”

Still needed for better robot disinfecting outcomes:

  • Further design adjustments of hospitals and devices to increase spaces the robots can reach.

  • Solving the issue of shadowing and improve free movement of robots in the hospital environment.

  • Improved understanding of efficient wavelength and exposure time to allow sufficient energy to be applied on each surface, as a function of the intended pathogen to be inactivated.

In addition to more technical developments, clinical trials in a variety of hospitals are warranted, say the authors.

Ann Marie Pettis, RN, president of the Association of Professionals in Infection Control, said the pandemic has also demonstrated the potential of using UV-C robots for no touch surface disinfection in non-healthcare settings. But she predicted that the robots “will always be an adjunct to manual cleaning and never totally replace human beings.”

“There are many things to consider when looking to implement this technology since there are many different iterations on the market,” said Pettis. “Some of the things to consider are cost and design features. UV-C is very effective even against organisms that are difficult to rid from the environment such as C. difficile; however, as the article points out, they are only effective after thorough cleaning of the surfaces occur [and] are not effective in disinfecting soft surfaces. Operation of the devices also takes training and careful attention to detail in use.