Copper elements save patient lives

Study finds copper reduces hospital-aquired infections by 58 percent

by Harold T. Michels, PhD

In the United States, one out of every 20 hospital patients develops a healthcare acquired infection (HAIs), resulting in an estimated100,000 deaths per year. Although numerous tactics have been put in place to help decrease the number of these infections, using antimicrobial copper metal surfaces is a strategy that works continuously and has been clinically proven to be effective.

Most importantly, the benefits that copper touch surfaces provide do not depend on human behavior. Unlike hand washing or non-copper surfaces, copper does not require the use of cleaners in order to fight off bacteria.

ICU Study
New research published in the Journal of Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology revealed that the use of antimicrobial copper surfaces in the intensive care unit (ICU) can reduce the number of HAIs by 58 percent when patients are treated in rooms with copper components instead of non-copper touch surfaces, such as stainless steel or plastic. What’s more, these results were achieved with copper components constituting just seven percent of touch surfaces in the room.

The study, funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, was conducted in the ICUs at three U.S. hospitals: The Medical University of South Carolina, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and the Ralph H. Johnson Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Charleston, S.C.

Copper objects, such as bedrails, IV poles, nurse call devices, data input devices, over-bed tables and visitor chair arms, were placed in the ICU, where patients are at higher risk due to the severity of their illnesses, invasive procedures and frequent interaction with healthcare workers.

Patients were randomly placed in available rooms with or without copper surfaces, and the rates of HAIs were compared. A total of 614 patients in 16 rooms (eight copper and eight standard) were studied between July 12, 2010 and June 14, 2011. From the study results, it was estimated that 14 infections were prevented. The proportion of patients who developed an HAI was significantly lower among those assigned to intensive care rooms with objects fabricated using copper alloys, by 58.1 percent.

This is the first study to establish a clear correlation between the amount of bacteria on hospital surfaces and the chance of obtaining an infection. The study proved that incorporating copper surfaces into ICUs can significantly reduce the amount of infections acquired by patients during hospital stays.

“Nearly 2 million patients contract an HAI every year,” said Dr. Michael Schmidt, professor and vice chairman of microbiology and immunology at the Medical University of South Carolina. “HAIs are actually the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., behind heart disease, cancer and strokes. We’ve finally proven a way to cut the number of these infections by more than half. That’s pretty  significant; copper can save lives.”

Why Copper Works
Other attempts to reduce HAIs by reducing bacteria in the environment have required increased hand hygiene, increased surface cleaning, or patient screening, which don’t necessarily stop the growth of bacteria the way copper alloy surfaces do. Because the antimicrobial effect is a continuous property of copper, it can kill up to 99 percent of bacteria within two hours of contact—this includes bacterial strains resistant to antibiotics.

Ultimately, copper creates a safer environment for hospital patients. Laboratory testing shows that, when cleaned regularly, antimicrobial copper surfaces kill greater than 99.9 percent of the following bacteria within two hours of exposure: MRSA, Vancomycin-Resistant Enterococcus faecalis (VRE), Staphylococcus aureus, Enterobacter aerogenes, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and
E. coli O157:H7. Additionally, numerous studies prove that copper kills other pathogens, such as CRE, Clostridium difficile, influenza A and norovirus.

Shortening Hospital Stays
Outfitting hospital rooms with copper not only keeps patients safer, it can significantly reduce a hospital’s expenses in treating infections. Each time a patient develops an HAI, their length of stay increases by approximately 19 days. It has been estimated that the additional care results in 35.7 to 45 billion dollars in healthcare costs annually nationwide.

Patients’ lives may also be at increasing risk if their hospital stay is lengthened. “Lengthening a patient’s stay can raise their mortality rate from 1.5 percent to 9 percent,” Dr. Schmidt added. “Not only that, patients who contract an HAI have a 2.5 fold likelihood of being
readmitted to the hospital within 30 days of discharge.”

Available Products
Currently, there are hundreds of antimicrobial copper healthcare-related products available, including IV poles, stretchers, tray tables, door knobs, pulls, towel bars and grab bars.

With several hundred alloys to choose from, there are finishes to enhance every type of home and healthcare facility—from shiny silver-looking “white copper” to a warm glow of the reddish-orange look of traditional copper.

The Ronald McDonald House (RMH) in Charleston, S.C., decided to retrofit its facility with antimicrobial copper components to further protect its youth patients who are vulnerable to potential illnesses and bacteria caused by a lowered immune system.

Antimicrobial copper was used for the stair railings, sinks, faucets, tables, locksets, cabinet pulls and chair arms; and high traffic areas in the building. This project marks the first nonprofit temporary residence facility in the country to undergo a copper retrofit.

Prior to the copper retrofit, the Medical University of South Carolina measured the amount of bacteria on the previous touch surfaces. Antimicrobial copper surfaces installed at the Ronald McDonald House consistently reduced total bacterial levels by more than 95
percent on average. These results were observed using a reproducible sampling method pioneered in the hospital trials.

Harold T. Michels, PhD, is senior vice president, technology and technical services, Copper Development Association, Inc.