Copper-infused products and their potential impact in fighting healthcare-associated infections (HAIs) are not new to our industry. But as emphasis grows on reducing readmission rates, increasing patient satisfaction, and cutting the alarming cost of HAIs (estimated to add $28-45 billion to annual U.S. healthcare costs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), is it time to revisit the topic?

The ECRI Institute (Plymouth Meeting, Pa.), a non-profit health organization, recently released its “2014 Top 10 Hospital C—Suite Watch List,” which puts copper surfaces in the number four spot.

Since these products were introduced to the market, their use has spread to include a variety of surfaces and linens, including bedrails, door handles, IV poles, food trays, faucets, bed sheets, gowns and blankets. More than 450 antimicrobial copper alloys are registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as public health antimicrobial products, meaning manufacturers can claim that they kill specific bacteria.

In its list, ECRI points out that while several healthcare organizations have introduced these products into facilities, much still needs to be understood, including how many copper items you need in a room to be effective and their return on investment.

Dr. Gene Burke, who spent 30 years working in the ICU where he specialized in critical care medicine and lung disease, says he’s watched the industry struggle with HAIs and thinks copper-infused products could make a big difference.

“We know the majority of infections that occur in hospital settings are because someone touches a surface, acquires bacteria, then touches the patient, the bed rail, or something, and then the patient touches it,” says Burke, who retired from his clinical practice a few years ago and now serves as vice president and executive medical director, clinical effectiveness, Sentara Healthcare (Norfolk, Va.).

While regular housekeeping routines keep most of these infection agents in control through daily cleaning, copper-infused products have bio-active substances that are continuously killing organisms.

Last November, Sentara, which operates 11 acute care hospitals in Virginia, began a year-long study to track the effectiveness of copper-infused surfaces and linens in patient areas at its new 129-bed tower at Sentara Leigh Hospital in Norfolk, Va.

As part of its evaluation, Sentara will look at infection rates already being tracked by healthcare organizations—such as urinary catheter-associated and central line blood stream infections—to see if there’s a decrease in their development and whether there’s a dip in the number of antibiotics prescribed as a result of HAIs.

“We have high confidence that it’s going to make a difference; what we don’t know is the magnitude of that difference,” Burke says.

Sentara plans share its data with the industry in early 2015.