NEW YORK — They sweep. They swab. They sterilize. And still the germs persist.
In US 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 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 impact is debatable. There is no widely accepted evidence that these inventions have prevented infections or deaths.
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 rare but showed up last year in at least 200 hospitals.
Hospitals started paying attention to infection control in the late 1880s, when mounting evidence showed unsanitary conditions were hurting patients. Hospital hygiene has been a concern ever since, with a renewed emphasis triggered by the emergence a decade ago of a nasty strain of intestinal bug called Clostridium difficile.
That diarrhea-causing bug is now linked to 14,000 US deaths annually. That has been the catalyst for the growing focus on infection control, said Mayfield, who is also president-elect of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology.
Clostridium difficile is easier to treat than some other hospital superbugs, like methicillin-resistant staph, but it is particularly difficult to clean away. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers don’t work, and Clostridium difficile can persist on hospital room surfaces for days. The CDC recommends hospital staff clean their hands rigorously with soap and water — or better yet, wear gloves. And rooms should be cleaned intensively with bleach, the CDC says.
Michael Claes developed a bad case of Clostridium difficile while he was a kidney patient last fall at New York City’s Lenox Hill Hospital. He and his doctor believe he caught it at the hospital. Claes praised his overall care, but felt the hospital’s room cleaning and infection control were less than perfect.
‘‘I would use the word ‘perfunctory,’ ’’ he said.
Lenox Hill spokeswoman Ann Silverman disputed that characterization, noting hospital workers are making efforts that patients often can’t see, like using hand sanitizer dispensers in hallways.