Technology-induced medical errors: the wave of the future?

Technology-induced medical errors: the wave of the future?

Summary: Tuesday's federal report addresses the strong need for safety in health IT without irresponsibly discouraging progress.


Electronic healthcare management is a really fascinating, promising topic, and most of the time, you hear people focusing on the improvements in patient care, as well as cost and time savings, partly because it helps make a case to get healthcare organizations on board with change.

The dark side of the topic is, of course, the less-often discussed and more threatening aspect of safety and security. Sometimes these fears are inflated for shock and horror or PR value. Sometimes they are glossed over. Rarely are they given credence or discussed in a detailed, productive manner. Scant attention has been paid to what harm may come from the widespread IT-ing of healthcare.

Considering the chilling effects of change is sometimes frowned upon in a culture in love with positive thinking, and in need of reinvention and transformation. Often, people who point out the fly in the ointment are reviled because of their buzz-killing interference with irrational exuberance.

Tuesday's federal report by the National Institute of Medicine, "Health IT and Patient Safety: Building Safer Systems for Better Care," addresses the strong need for safety in health IT without irresponsibly discouraging progress.

One of the more interesting recommendations in the report is to create a new oversight agency modeled after the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board), that could investigate medical IT errors in the same spirit as aircraft crashes are investigated. Whether the federal government needs yet another agency is certainly up for debate. The flip side of the question is, of course, whether the responsibility should be added to the already-beleaguered FDA, although it seems clear from things like the Zyprexa debacle of a few years ago that they're pretty maxed out as it is.

The full text of the National Academies Press pre-publication e-book, "Health IT and Patient Safety" is available if you want to read it. It's definitely work a look. I'll be reading the full report over the next few days, and I'm sure it'll provide thought-provoking material for future blog posts, so stay tuned.

What are your biggest concerns about safety with electronic health records? Any suggestions for mitigation? After all, you're the IT experts. Share in the TalkBacks below.

Topics: Health, CXO, Legal, IT Employment


Denise Amrich is a Registered Nurse, the health care advisor for the U.S. Strategic Perspective Institute, and a mentor for the Virtual Campus at Florida's Brevard Community College.

Nothing in this article is meant to be a substitute for medical advice, and shouldn't be considered as such. If you are in need of medical help, please see your doctor.

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  • Yup-da-doo

    Given that "The Internet" is now regularly blamed by television news for the acts of predators who found their victims on Facebook instead of in a gym, I'm sure we'll hear all about how various snafus were caused by "computers" instead of doctors' bad handwriting.
    Robert Hahn
    • RE: Technology-induced medical errors: the wave of the future?

      @Robert Hahn: Altough you should be aware that there are medical devices that can be controlled remotely by radio - unencrypted and unauthenticated! One of these is an insulin injection device. An attacker could sit 300 feet away and make the device pump out *all* of the insulin at once, without triggering alarms, probably causing death in minutes. It's like walking around with a ticking bomb!

      The solution is top level security in them and full responsibility for the companies who make insecure devices.

      If you're not willing to take the responsibility for deaths caused by attacks against insecure devices, DON'T SELL THEM!
  • I'm a Healthcare IT worker

    I work as an Healthcare IT Oncology consultant. Yes, every system is flawed, but adding technology to healthcare has far more pluses than minuses. Most of the errors I see on a daily basis are human errors. These have been happening since the dawn of humanity and will continue no matter the level of technology deployed.
  • RE: Technology-induced medical errors: the wave of the future?

    interoperability would introduce a measure of safety by limiting the variety of software "holes" to get through. We need legislation to make this mandatory.
    • RE: Technology-induced medical errors: the wave of the future?

      @mobrien200: More like by forcing more sane protocols and interfaces without "clever" solutions.
  • Priorities!

    I'm all for having an enforcement and investigation division for IT, right AFTER as all the legacy GARBAGE gets sorted out. Anecdotes from MY experience of Hospital Information Systems.

    "You fax all the reqs with all the patient's confidential info and the physician's notes to the radiologists?"
    "What are these programmed numbers? Half of these go to numbers that aren't in our system anymore. Is there anyone responsible for REMOVING OLD numbers from the fax's program?"

    "Your department keeps paper notes on all its patients separate from the Hospital Information System? This door says maintenance storage. Whoa! There is an entire file room back here! There is no monitoring at all. Just the little lock on the doorknob and the deliberate mischaracterization of the space keep this place safe?!"

    "You outsource your document shredding because every order gets printed or written out in triplicated. Right. What do you mean they lost the box? It's like 300lbs of paper in a giant plywood box. How do you LOSE that?"

    "You contracted your medical record storage out, right. Yes, data warehousing of paper is very very very expensive, I know. Yes, two to four days to retrieve a patient's file from a warehouse 200 miles a way sounds about right. So what's the problem? Oh, there was a leak...?"
  • Medical IT that works

    I have lived in Britain for over 80 years and my doctors have kept me healthy. My current doctor is in a group which adopted IT early and I have had many benefits. The main effect has been that having my whole history available when I make a visit means that he knows the trends of changes in me. This means prompt action on any changes. I now take a few pills regularly to correct vitamin D deficiency and correct signs of other incipient failings as I age.
    Properly used IT is a great benefit. Of course with a National Health Service there is not the problem of filling the coffers of predatory insurance companies. I pay reasonable taxes and when I need medical attention it is free.
  • RE: Technology-induced medical errors: the wave of the future?

    Mark Twain said "Be careful reading medical books. You might die of a misprint." How much more relevant that is today, when orders might be carried out before they can be reviewed by humans.
    Old Rockin' Dave
  • RE: Technology-induced medical errors: the wave of the future?

    GREAT! Just what we need! After all, more people DIE every day at the hands of "medical professionals" than from guns. Now the "professionals" can have more "accidents"! Of course, they will blame someone else, calling it a "computer glitch".
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  • RE: Technology-induced medical errors: the wave of the future?

    Caution: Pregnant and Breastfeeding women use them.Keep out reach of children .Do not give to children.