Improvements in patient safety make up the largest benefit

that information technology brings to the healthcare field.  There are others, of course, such as reduced

healthcare costs thanks to improved operating efficiencies, but safety should

be at the top of the list.  For all the

fingers pointed back at IT when things go wrong, because things do, it’s also

nice to know that we are installing systems which help save lives.  Look around the office the next time you visit

a healthcare provider to receive medical treatment.  Take time to notice the number of

computerized equipment and systems responsible for your care.  If by some small chance you look around and

notice that most of the technology can be accounted for by the video gaming boy

in the waiting room, you may want to turn around and quickly head for the door

marked EXIT.

Studies released by the

John Hopkins Children’s Center report on the reduced risk to patients which

resulted from the implementation of a computerized drug ordering system and a

web-based dosage calculator.  In short,

computer generated orders were compared to hand written orders and it was found

that twenty-seven percent of handwritten orders were incorrect versus six

percent of the computerized orders.  The

computerized system was able to automatically calculate dosage based on weight

and size, and also included safety checklists as well as warnings about

possible drug interactions.  It should

have been easy to assume that computers would perform more accurate

calculations than people.  The added

bonus was the ability to cross-reference other important information such as

personal history and potentially harmful drug combinations. 

The VA, yes the same VA still being criticized and burned at

the stake for being the only organization to ever misplace data, appears to

have done something right with regards to technology implementation.  They digitized the medical records of Armed

Forces members.  According to the Los

Angeles Times, this truly proved its worth in the days following the

destruction of Hurricane Katrina as most people seeking medical care were displaced

and without their medical records.  This

forced physicians to guess about the patient’s past history and further

complicated the care delivery process, but not for VA members.  For them, doctors were able to access

prescriptions, records and previous lab results.  This helped improve the accuracy and safety

of the care they received.

There are countless other stories and examples which point

to how much safer healthcare is due in large part to the increasing embrace of

technology.  But I am not disillusioned

either.  Implementations of patient care

systems are often difficult for all involved, and often come with their fair

share of speed bumps.  And technology

alone does not make healthcare safer.  Along

with technology, it takes new approaches from medical professionals and the

modification of old processes.  Decisions

by IT professionals also come into play as we must decide which new

technologies to recommend and install. 

Do we go with thin clients and connect wirelessly to the network?  Do we virtualize servers and

applications?  All of these decisions can

affect the delivery of patient care, sometimes negatively.  Once staff becomes dependent on new systems,

the impact of a down system is felt by all, patients and doctors included.  Paper and pen, on the other hand, don’t go


But despite some drawbacks and challenges, there is zero

doubt that IT can and does make the delivery of healthcare safer for

patients.  There are patient monitoring

systems that monitor a person’s vital signs and alert the appropriate medical

staff, and pharmacy systems that warn of possible allergic reactions and help

prevent overdosing.   Yes, healthcare is

making strong strides in safety thanks to IT.