Protecting Patients in the HIT World

Image via Flickr user southerntabitha by Creative Commons License.

Many electronic health records are equipped with alerts and other safety features, designed specifically to prevent the type of human errors that too often put patients at risk for injury. But the reality is that health information technology (HIT) has its own problems when it comes to patient safety. The Health Information Technology Policy Committee, which advises the federal government’s health IT czar, met earlier today to talk about some of the unique safety risks presented by HIT.

It turns out that only a small part of the problem is caused by faulty technology, said Paul Egerman, who co-chairs the Certification/ Adoption Workgroup for the HIT Policy Committee. While some problems do occur because of software bugs, those are generally easily fixed, provided they are discovered. Instead, the bulk of the problem comes from the complex interactions between people and technology, known as issues of usability. In other words, the technology can be working fine, but if the staff isn’t trained to use it or if using it makes their lives so miserable that they develop workarounds, bad things can happen.

This problem could become magnified as more physicians and hospitals adopt electronic health records with an eye on cashing in on government incentives for the use of the technology. These incentives begin in 2011. Mr. Egerman and his group put out preliminary recommendations for how to solve some of these potential patient safety issues. For starters, they suggest that all training and implementation for HIT devote some time to patient safety as well as how to report patient safety risks. They also want to focus on the near misses and potential hazards to try to prevent unsafe conditions before an error is made. They also called for establishing a national database where providers could report problems and the information could be rapidly disseminated to other institutions that might be doing something similarly risky.

Has health IT helped or hurt patient safety efforts in your institution? Let us know.

— Mary Ellen Schneider (on Twitter @MaryEllenNY)

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Filed under Family Medicine, Health Policy, IMNG, Internal Medicine, Practice Trends, Primary care

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