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Don’t Look Now, Your Loop is Open

March 12, 2008 News No Comments

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 September 2006. Inside Healthcare Computing subscribers receive a new editorial every week in their Electronic Update.

Three babies dead in Indiana, overdosed with the wrong heparin product in a hospital not using bedside barcode verification of meds. Technology failed them, plain and simple.

Ten years ago, nursing and pharmacy systems didn’t talk to each other (pharmacists and nurses didn’t either, but that’s another story.) Finally, everyone agreed that was pretty stupid, so vendors did a little bit of integration to make systems look like they did. The electronic Medication Administration Record (eMAR) was born, although most hospitals stuck with once-a-day printed versions for a several reasons, most of them illogical.

Along came CPOE, usually hung awkwardly off of those same nursing and pharmacy systems. It was (and is) expensive, rarely used, and inefficiently designed for physicians, but it caught the eye of well-intentioned hospital executives who were blissfully unaware that all those CPOE-preventable errors weren’t the ones harming patients anyway. I like to think of it as the Job Security Act for Chief Medical Informatics Officers, who, like the painters assigned to the Golden Gate Bridge, have job security because their work will never be finished.

Even if you buy the ubiquitous vendor buzzword “closed loop,” don’t kid yourself. The dent in harmful medication errors has been slight. It may have even gone up. Why? Because nurses still walk a tightrope without a net, armed only with limited drug knowledge, paper records updated with pens, and a wide-open candy machine of increasingly dangerous drugs … uhhh, I mean decentralized medication distribution cabinets.

We bought the technology least likely to be used, that addresses errors least likely to be harmful, and deployed it in patient care areas least likely to make serious errors in the first place. And while we’re still making payments on that stuff and trying to strong-arm clinicians to use it, we’re still harming patients.

But let’s look on the positive side. Technology is the only hope of improving the situation.

If you’re a vendor with an integrated bedside verification system, get those sales guys on the road because I guarantee you’ll sell a bunch of them in the next year if yours is any good. Guarantee, I said. The Indiana errors will be the pin that pops the CPOE bubble, making even the big-picture types understand that they’ve been chasing the wrong solution.

If you sell add-on tools for electronic MARs or have the expertise to consult in that or any other patient safety area, polish up your shingle. Plenty of organizations need your help.

If your company is one of few selling medication distribution cabinets, get some real informatics people designing improvements instead of those engineers more concerned with servo motors and drawer design instead of intelligent software.

And if you’re Cerner, congratulations! You bought Bridge Medical and their bedside technology just at the right time and announced plans for your own line of medication distribution cabinets. You’ve got a widely installed customer base who wanted closed loop meds. If you don’t mess it up, you could build a huge business on the other half of the loop, the one that isn’t closed. I guarantee that, too.

But for goodness sake, let’s all of us agree not to dawdle. There are already too many parents out there who won’t get to celebrate their baby’s first birthday.

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Mr. HIStalk’s editorials appear each Thursday morning in the subscribers-only version of Inside Healthcare Computing’s E-News Update. To subscribe, please go to: https://insidehealth.com/ihcwebsite/subscribe.html or call 877-690-1871.

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