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How patients can suffer when hospital equipment can't communicate

The vast majority of hospitals have made a commitment to improving the patient experience over the last decade such that the typical hospital room has undergone something of a drastic transformation. Indeed, flat-screen televisions, more accommodating bathroom suites and comfortable seating for guests are now the norm in many facilities.

Many hospitals have also made significant -- and altogether necessary -- investments in top-of-the -line equipment from advanced infusion pumps to electronic medical records. However, while the obvious goal of purchasing such equipment is to improve patient outcomes, a recent study suggests this might not be what's happening.

The results of a recent survey commissioned by the West Health Institute, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit healthcare advocacy group, found that there is one major issue when it comes to the top-of-the-line equipment found in the hospitals rooms of today: the lack of interoperability.

What this means is that the equipment -- infusion pumps, electronic medical records, heart monitors, ventilators etc. -- is unable to communicate and/or provide the necessary updates. For example, if a physician changes a medication order in a patient's electronic medical file, this is not automatically communicated to the infusion pump.   

While this may not seem problematic, the study found that it can serve to make things much harder for nurses, who are tasked with not only ensuring all devices are on the same page, but also troubleshooting any technical problems that arise.

Even worse, the survey of more than 500 nurses found that roughly half had seen this lack of interoperability result in medical errors causing harm to patients.

What then can be done to combat this problem?

According to officials with the West Health Institute, the onus is on the makers of this medical equipment to make cross-communication a priority going forward and that agencies like the Food and Drug Administration could likely hasten this by offering incentives.   

It remains to be seen how much emphasis will be given to interoperability going forward. In the meantime, hospital staff must exercise the necessary care to ensure that all equipment is fully functional and that patients are fully protected from any sort of cross-communication errors.

Source: MPR News, "Nurses have to translate when medical devices fail to communicate," Scott Hensley, March 13, 2015

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