Mike Stobbe

NEW YORK: They sweep. They swab. They sterilize. And still the germs persist.

In U.S. hospitals, an estimated 1 in 20 patients pick up infections they didn’t have when they arrived, some caused by dangerous “superbugs” that are hard to treat.

The rise of these superbugs, along with increased pressure from the government and insurers, is driving hospitals to try all sorts of new approaches to stop their spread:

Machines that resemble Star Wars robots and emit ultraviolet light or hydrogen peroxide vapors. Germ-resistant copper bed rails, call buttons and IV poles. Antimicrobial linens, curtains and wall paint.

While these products can help get a room clean, their true impact is still debatable. There is no widely accepted evidence that these inventions have prevented infections or deaths.

Meanwhile, insurers are pushing hospitals to do a better job and the government’s Medicare program has moved to stop paying bills for certain infections caught in the hospital.

“We’re seeing a culture change” in hospitals, said Jennie Mayfield, who tracks infections at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis.

Those hospital infections are tied to an estimated 100,000 deaths each year and add as much as $30 billion a year in medical costs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency last month sounded an alarm about a “nightmare bacteria” resistant to one class of antibiotics. That kind is still rare but it showed up last year in at least 200 hospitals.

The diarrhea-causing intestinal bug Clostridium difficile, or C-diff, emerged a decade ago and is now linked to 14,000 U.S. deaths annually.

There’s a growing recognition that it’s not only surgical knives and operating rooms that need a thorough cleaning but also spots like bed rails and even television remote controls, said Dr. Marisa Montecalvo, a contagious diseases specialist at Westchester Medical Center in New York. Now there’s more attention to making sure “that all the nooks and crannies are clean, and that it’s done in as perfect a manner as can be done,” she said.

Enter companies like Xenex Healthcare Services, a San Antonio company that makes a portable, $125,000 machine that’s rolled into rooms to zap C-diff and other bacteria and viruses dead with ultraviolet light. Xenex has sold or leased devices to more than 100 U.S. hospitals, including Westchester Medical Center.

The market niche is expected to grow from $30 million to $80 million in the next three years, according to Frost & Sullivan, a market research firm.

Officials at Cooley Dickinson Hospital, a 140-bed facility in Northampton, Mass., said the ultraviolet has done a terrific job at cleaning their hospital of C-diff.

A small observational study at the hospital showed C-diff infection rates fell by half and C-diff deaths fell from 14 to two during the last two years, compared to the two years before the machines.