NPR logo A Copper Bedrail Could Cut Back On Infections For Hospital Patients

Social Entrepreneurs: Taking On World Problems

A Copper Bedrail Could Cut Back On Infections For Hospital Patients

A copper bedrail can kill germs on contact. Courtesy of CopperBioHealth hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of CopperBioHealth

A copper bedrail can kill germs on contact.

Courtesy of CopperBioHealth

Checking into a hospital can boost your chances of infection. That's a disturbing paradox of modern medical care.

And it doesn't matter where in the world you're hospitalized. From the finest to the most rudimentary medical facilities, patients are vulnerable to new infections that have nothing to do with their original medical problem. These are referred to as healthcare-acquired infections, healthcare-associated infections or hospital-acquired infections. Many of them, like pneumonia or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), can be deadly.

The World Health Organization estimates that "each year, hundreds of millions of patients around the world are affected" by healthcare-acquired infections. In the United States, the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion in the Health and Human Services Department estimates that 1 in 25 inpatients has a hospital-related infection. In developing countries, estimates run higher.

Hospital bed safety railings are a major source of these infections. That's what Constanza Correa, 33, and her colleagues have found in their research in Santiago, Chile. They've taken on the problem by replacing them, since 2013, with railings made of copper, an anti-microbial element.

Copper definitely wipes out microbes. "Bacteria, yeasts and viruses are rapidly killed on metallic copper surfaces, and the term "contact killing" has been coined for this process," wrote the authors of an article on copper in Applied and Environmental Microbiology. That knowledge has been around a very long time. The journal article cites an Egyptian medical text, written around 2600-2000 B.C., that cites the use of copper to sterilize chest wounds and drinking water.

Correa's startup, Copper BioHealth, has not yet assessed the railings' impact in Chilean hospitals. But a study of the effects of copper-alloy surfaces in U.S. hospitals' intensive care units, published last year in Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology, showed promising results: Their presence reduced the number of healthcare-acquired infections from 8.1 percent in regular rooms to 3.4 percent in the copper rooms.

Correa spoke with Goats and Soda a few hours before she presented her work at a Latin America innovation conference earlier this month, hosted by the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, D.C.

You have a simple strategy to combat hospital-associated infections. Tell me what it involves.

Healthcare-acquired infections are a huge problem. People come to the hospital with a sickness, and they get another one in the hospital. Then they have to stay longer and spend more money on treatment. Sometimes it can cause death. Eighty percent of these infections come from touching hospital surfaces. In the hospital room, the most contaminated surface is the bed rail. It's the most manipulated by medical staff and patients. It's in direct contact with the patient. That's the most critical surface in the room.

Our objective is to decrease the chance of infection due to surface contact. So we replace current bed rails with copper bed rails. It kills viruses, fungi and bacteria continuously.

What's the magnitude of the problem?

In industrialized countries, 5 percent of patients develop these infections and the number is three times more in developing countries. These are infections like pneumonia and urinary tract infections. In the United States, the annual direct cost to treat these infections is $40 billion a year. Plus the patient loses time at work. And we don't consider what happens after a patient leaves the hospital. They may get sick [from these infections] later, too.

How many hospitals are using your copper railings now?

They are used at four hospitals in Chile, in 150 beds. We only change the rails, not the whole bed. We realized price is an issue, so we focus on the most critical surface and we use a leasing model so it is easier for [hospitals] to take the decision. It's not a big investment decision. The cost is $60 to $100 per bed per month. After 36 months, they have paid for it.

Are there other places where copper could help prevent infection?

There are a lot of options for how to incorporate copper. Bed rails are only the first step. You can have copper IV poles, feeding tables, night tables, even mattress covers.

Mattress covers?

Yes, there is a copper additive that can be combined with a polymer and it's much better than the current covers. It is all to create a healthier environment. You can even use it for subway straps.

Have you had any personal experience with healthcare-acquired infections?

Yes, my grandmother was hospitalized after a hip fracture. She got an infection — she caught pneumonia. We almost lost her. We thought she was going to die, and not because of the broken hip.

Did she recover?

Yes, fortunately. But hospitals should be safer. Copper kills everything. Why wouldn't you use it? It has so much sense for people.

We no longer support commenting on NPR.org stories, but you can find us every day on Facebook, Twitter, email, and many other platforms. Learn more or contact us.