Violet the robot attacks germs at UPMC Passavant


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Bright purple lights pulsed through an empty hospital room as UPMC Passavant‘‍s new robot, Violet, completed its work. In 15 minutes,  ultraviolet rays emerging from its neck would penetrate the bacteria in the space, reaching nooks and crannies that humans overlooked.

Violet is the latest in a growing slate of robotic devices that UPMC has purchased in efforts to improve hospital sanitation. Funded by a $75,000 grant from the Passavant Hospital Foundation, the machine uses ultraviolet C lights to destroy strong viruses and bacteria, commonly known as “superbugs,” that are resistant to traditional antibiotic treatments. Since UPMC Passavant, in McCandless, began using Violet last month, it has disinfected 346 patient rooms. 

The device was manufactured by Xenex, a producer of “germ-zapping robots.” UPMC Presbyterian, UPMC Montefiore and UPMC Shadyside began employing different models of UV cleaning robots in February.

“Light is a powerful disinfectant,” said Fay Morgan, president of the Passavant Hospital Foundation. “We are harnessing it.”

The cleaning procedure occurs after a room has been vacated and already disinfected once by an employee in the hospital’‍s environmental services department. A technician then wheels the robot into the room, positioning Violet somewhere that will allow it to hit all exposed surfaces. After each five-minute cycle, the machine is usually moved to another part of the space. 

All this occurs without a human inside the room, as the technician leaves after the machine has been set up. Terrance Rhodes, an environmental services aide, is among the 25 workers at UPMC Passavant who have been trained to use the robot.

The procedure is straight-forward, said Mr. Rhodes, who learned it in half an hour.

These cleanings also will take place behind closed curtains and doors, as long-term exposure to the lights can cause vision damage. Mark Hundley, director of environmental services at UPMC Passavant, said, “It‘‍s like looking at the sun.” 

The effectiveness of the robot will be measured using the infection prevention department‘s data on healthcare-acquired infection, the hospital‘‍s infection prevention coordinator, Loraine DeSimone, explained. 

“Data will need to be collected and reviewed over a period of time so that we can compare our infection rates pre- and post-implementation of this new technology,” she said. After these outcomes have been evaluated, UPMC will decide whether to apply the robots on a larger scale.

Xenex robots, which have been on the market since 2009, have shown some success at other hospitals. A study conducted at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Tex., found a 30 percent facility-wide reduction in Clostridium difficile, a form of bacterial superbug, after using the robot.

In comparison to ultraviolet A or B, Mr. Hundley said, ultraviolet C doesn’‍t penetrate through the atmosphere because it is completely absorbed by the ozone layer. The hospital‘s viruses and bacteria will be encountering the rays for the first time, making them more vulnerable.


Yanan Wang: ywang@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1949 or on Twitter @yananw.

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