By Manas Mishra

(Reuters Health) – Ultraviolet sanitizing devices could be stationed around hospitals to help prevent the spread of bacteria on workers’ devices like smartphones, a small Canadian study suggests.

Researchers in British Columbia recruited staff at three hospitals to disinfect their smart devices twice daily and found a drastic reduction in the amount of bacteria growing on the devices afterward, according to the report.

“Cleaning and disinfecting these devices is important to prevent spread of bacteria and viruses in the hospital and between patients,” Dr. Clare Rock of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who was not involved in the study, told Reuters Health by email.

Smartphones and wearable devices are becoming the medium of choice for doctors to communicate with staff and patients, Stephanie Huffman of Island Health and the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and her colleagues write in the American Journal of Infection Control.

Infections can spread by contact with unclean hands and equipment like respiratory machines, but most hospitals have hand-hygiene rules and systems in place to regularly disinfect medical instruments.

Routine and proper cleaning of smartphones and wearables such as the popular Vocera Badge has not been well explored, the study team writes. Using alcohol wipes is generally not recommended by smartphone makers.

To see if UV sanitizing devices could make a difference in the amount of bacteria growing on staff phones and wearables, the researchers recruited 153 volunteers, including doctors, nurses and pharmacists, to participate in a test over the course of about three months.

The researchers swabbed a total of 209 devices, including phones, smartwatches and similar wearable tech, before introducing the UV sanitizing protocol.

At baseline, 68% of participants said they normally cleaned their devices with hospital-provided wipes such as alcohol swabs, and 25% did not clean their device at all. Swabs revealed that 21% of the devices had pathogenic bacteria growing on them.

Participants were asked to use the UV sanitizers twice daily, at the beginning and end of a shift. Researchers swabbed each device before it went into the UV sanitizer and afterward, and found that before UV sanitizing, 20% of devices had bacterial growth, compared to less than 5% afterward.

Surveys revealed that just over half of the participants were using the UV sanitizers regularly, and 20% had rarely or never used them. Most participants said they found the sanitizers easy to use but found it hard to remember to use them twice daily.

The authors were not available to comment on the study.

Dr. Michael David of the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine in Philadelphia, who wasn’t involved in the research, noted that more answers are needed before recommending UV sanitizers.

“Even though you have bacteria on your smartphone, the question would be how often they go from the object to the patient, and we don’t know the answer to that,” he said in a telephone interview. “The finding is interesting and the study seems to be well done, but the significance of the findings still remain to be seen.”

One limitation of the study, the authors note, is that smartphone cases were not tested, and they may harbor bacteria on surfaces that don’t get exposed to the UV light.

The research team also found bacteria was present on 23% of ID badges they tested, compared with 14% for smart-watches before being exposed to UV radiation.

Hand hygiene policies often recommend against wearing smartwatches, but an effective sanitizing method might open the door to clinicians being able to wear smartwatches, the study authors note.

SOURCE: American Journal of Infection Control, online November 7, 2019.