A new study by researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina found that hospitals may be able to take a relatively easy step to cut their infection rates in half— by simply putting more copper in the room.
Roughly 99,000 patients die each year after being infected by bacteria or other “superbugs” during a hospital visit, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But MUSC researchers say their study found that installing copper surfaces at six “touch-points” in an intensive-care unit (ICU) significantly reduced the risk of infection.
The researchers examined records 300 patients who were treated in ICUs equipped with the copper surfaces and an additional 300 who were treated in traditional rooms. The study conducted from July 2010 to June 2011 found that patients in the normal rooms had a rate of 11 infections per thousand patient days, but those with the copper surfaces only experienced 5 per thousand.
The project’s senior author, MUSC Microbiology and Immunology professor Michael Schmidt, said the results were eye-opening. “When you can go from 11 infections to 5 infections by just placing a limited amount of material that requires no human intervention, it’s really a pretty remarkable transformation,” he told South Carolina Radio Network.
The new study published in the May issue of Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology found that antimicrobial copper is able kill 97 percent of the bacteria that cause hospital-acquired infections (HAIs). Hospitals currently use hydrogen peroxide and ultraviolet light to decontaminate an intensive-care unit. But both steps are time-consuming and require the room to be empty. And they are not always effective, as Schmidt said the bacteria often return within a day.
“Patients who suffer HAIs often stay in the hospital longer, incur greater costs, and unfortunately suffer a greater likelihood of dying while hospitalized,” Dr. Cassandra Salgado, associate professor of infectious disease at the school and lead author of the study, said in a statement. The Defense Department funded the project.
The CDC estimates that a patient has roughly a 1-in-20 chance of being infected during their hospital stay. Those victims than have similar 1-in-20 odds of dying from complications once they are infected.
Schmidt said copper has long been known as an antimicrobial decontaminant, but hospitals had hesitated to use it over cost concerns. Instead medical officials prefer to use cheaper and more comfortable plastic surfaces. But Schmidt insists hospitals will see long-term savings if they apply copper to only the most-touched surfaces in an ICU.
“We didn’t have very much copper in the system,” he said. “We literally just had them on the essential touch-points where peoples’ hands would interact. And that’s all it took.” He said the average hospital-acquired infection adds $43,000 to the bill, but refitting the room with copper only cost his research team $5,000 per room.
The hospitals involved in the study were the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, MUSC, and the Ralph Johnson VA Medical Center.