Inside Healthcare Computing has graciously agreed to make previous Mr. HIStalk editorials available from its newsletter as a weekly "Best Of" series for HIStalk. This editorial originally appeared in the newsletter in May 2006. Inside Healthcare Computing subscribers receive a new editorial every week in their Electronic Update.
In working with nurses for many years. I’m always amazed by two things: (a) they are shockingly caring and helpful to complete strangers who are experiencing pain, fright, and human emotion and I love and respect them for that; and (b) they are terrible computer users.
Before the nurse readers of Inside Healthcare Computing rise en masse to lynch me, allow me to present my flimsy, anecdotal evidence. I’ve known at least 500 nurses over the years, many of them in informatics or IT roles. I’ve yet to see more than a handful who are good computer users and no more than a couple who can program or fix hardware and software problems.
Watching them navigate through complex clinical applications is like watching your kid play tee-ball from the stands – we nerds try to help them with muttered urgings (“Press Alt-Tab … Alt-Tab”) or subtle body English. It doesn’t come natural.
The part of the brain that makes a great nurse has some sort of limbic dominance over the nerd center of the brain. That’s not the case with lab techs, pharmacists, physicians, or most other healthcare professionals. It’s not good or bad, it just is.
In short, there are few geek nurses, which is great news if you’re a patient who needs comforting or complex clinical care. Do you want a nerdy programmer or network engineer inserting your urinary catheter?
Who are the main users of our clinical systems? Nurses. Who designs their systems? Nerds, with occasional help from nurses (usually formerly practicing nurses with a little more of the nerd center, actually.)
I can’t think of any other industry where the front-line workers (and darned busy ones at that) are expected to interact at a high level with computers at all times. Lawyers, professors, artists, executives, and salespeople don’t. Maybe we’re asking too much for good nurses to be good computer users, too.
That’s where software design comes in. We’re still installing software that assumes that end users know and love the programmer’s way: poorly designed screens, unhelpful edits, and workflow that doesn’t match reality.
A just-released study found that routine overrides policy: 44% don’t always follow the two-identifier rule and a fourth of ICU nurses give critical meds without a double check. I suspect we don’t want to know how often nurses fail to chart meds electronically, clear their work lists, or reconcile orders.
While IT people sit in meetings and see policies in black and white (just like the absolute right and wrong of computer programming,) nurses are out there caring without much of a safety net. They often don’t know or remember the rules; sometimes they break them because it makes sense.
I’m not blaming nurses. If you asked programmers to suddenly start taking care of their co-workers when they’re sick, you get the idea.
Systems being sold today require too much training and computer savvy to ever expect a large body of nurses to master. They are not usability tested or certified against a panel of typical nurses. Not surprisingly, they aren’t particularly well used, either.
Rewriting old applications to make sense to nurses isn’t easy or cheap. It isn’t even necessary, since the bar hasn’t been set all that high. Still, I can’t help but think that the lack of clinical system success will eventually be tracked back to sub-optimally designed applications, which might spur at least one vendor to market a system that thinks like nurses, is easy to use, and doesn’t require compromising workflow. That’s what I’d like to see.
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