Advances in Healthcare IT are Improving Patient Safety

by Trevor Strome on August 31, 2011

IT implementations must focus on the needs of the patient

Most quality improvement approaches used in healthcare (including Lean, Six Sigma, and others) consider, if not focus on, the needs of the patient when identifying opportunities for improvement and when defining metrics for evaluating outcomes and sustainability. Importantly, as health information technology (HIT) implementation projects mature, the criteria by which success is defined now often include impacts on patient safety and experience. It is no longer acceptable to consider a project successful if it’s “on time, on budget” (or, in most cases, nearly so). Patient outcomes and effectiveness of care are becoming real factors in the evaluation of HIT implementations.

Incentives and opportunities for improving patient safety

There are many drivers that compel healthcare organizations (HCOs) to adopt new technology. For example, in the United States, “meaningful use” of electronic health records (EHRs) can lead to incentive payments to help cover the cost of implementing such systems. Other drivers may include the need to replace out-dated technology or the need to transform healthcare into a system we can sustain without bankrupting individuals (or entire nations for that matter). The bottom line, and the most important driver, is that healthcare information technology provides healthcare organizations with the opportunity to improve the safety and efficiency of, and experience associated with, patient care.

Examples of HIT in action

Early implementations of HIT often offered scant evidence of being even remotely helpful in healthcare, let alone improving patient safety. However, as technology has improved and the technical savvy of clinical end-users has increased, evidence is beginning to emerge that HIT can in fact make a difference in the metrics that matter. In the article Making the Most of patient Safety I.T., Neil Versel highlights real-life examples of how HIT is in fact making a difference in improving patient safety and outcomes. In the article, Versel mentions a closed-loop medication administration system that not only improves patient safety, but regularly obtains close to 100% compliance. Hospital-wide Wi-Fi is also helping to improve patient care, given that it is now possible to monitor patients anywhere within the healthcare facility (and even while being transferred between units). In addition, Wi-Fi coupled with Radio-frequency Identification (RFID) technology allows real-time tracking of patients, visitors, staff, and physical assets. As HIT innovations occur across all aspects of the healthcare system, the article offers encouragement that patient outcomes are now truly a key component in gauging the success and value of these technologies.

HIT is only part of the solution

It is important to remember, however, that health technology is only part of the solution. HIT is an enabler that can help healthcare organizations reach their goals of improved patient safety and operational efficiency. For every genuinely effective HIT solution, however, there is another that is “searching for a problem”. There are undoubtedly many problems and issues in healthcare for which HIT is a legitimate solution. In other cases,  a change in policy, process, or culture may be the more appropriate approach – with or without a technology component.  Technology implemented in a haphazard manner without accounting for the needs and outcomes of patients will result in just another failed IT project. Real healthcare transformation is possible only when technology addresses a gap, when HCOs have the necessary quality improvement and change management practices in place to support change, and when the impact on patient outcomes is a primary point of evaluation.

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