Vol. 27 August 15, 2010 No One Is Perfect, Not Even Computers.

My last post described how a precisely regimented dosage of intravenous medication delivered to me over six hours by a state-of-the art computer actually depended on the existence (and the survival for 6 hours) of a handwritten yellow Stickie hanging on my IV pole. I write this post as a recipient, certainly not a victim, since no harm occurred, of a “care error” caused by a computer.

After my first infusion I grumbled to my physician that it had taken 6 hours, and that the package stuffer the nurse gave me recommended about a 2 hour infusion for someone my weight and age. He was surprised but responded, “Those nurses are really good. They probably have more information about the drug. I would go with what they say.” So I called the Head Nurse in the Infusion Center. She told me that the infusion rates come from the computer. “How does the computer know them?”, I asked.  She responded, “The Hospital Pharmacy Committee puts them in.” I called the Chief Pharmacist, noted the difference between the package insert and the computer recommendations, and asked him to review the information because I would sure like to spend just 2 hours off my boat rather than 6 for the next treatment. He contacted me a couple of days later to tell me that that medication infusion rate had been entered into the computer several years ago and was based on data from the one manufacturer of the medication. “There are now three manufacturers and two different concentrations. Each one has different infusion rates. Yours could go in over 2 hours. I will take care of updating the computer’s recommendations for your medication before the next treatment.”

The Institute of Medicine describes a medical error as “following a wrong plan of care or not completing a correct plan of care”. My computer-associated medical error was caused by “failure to update reference information”.

Do computers cause errors? The FDA maintains a data-base that categorizes voluntarily submitted adverse events associated with thousands of medical devices. Only five of the categories have the word “computer” in it. The Huffington Post made a considerable effort to analyze the most recent year’s findings in this data base and found 237 incidents that were related to health information technology. (1)

Six deaths were associated with computer adverse events. Except for two hospital-wide computer system crashes which delayed medications (both in 2006 in Cerner installations) the events included well recognized causes of NON-computer medical errors: delay in sending an x-ray image to another facility, a physician missed reading a significant “addendum note” on another physician’s progress note, an incorrect patient identification on an xray film, and an incorrect mixing of a chemotherapy solution.

Forty-three injuries associated with computer adverse events were reported. Many of these involved incorrect manufacturing of intravenous solutions rather than incorrect computer-directed delivery as well as incorrect dates, patient identification, or study type in radiology filing systems (PACs). These radiology “errors” became “injuries” when the errors were not perceived by human readers using multiple display screens, multiple screens,  screen short-cuts, etc.

Studies to date of computer errors in clinical care have by and large identified the computer/human interface as the most frequent cause of error: transcription errors, misreading of displays, mis-navigation among screens,  ignoring alerts, overriding warnings or alerts, failing to update reference and resource information. It is comforting to know that very few of these have led to harm because most of these are recognized as errors by trained clinicians before harm occurs. There is little data currently to suggest that we are just seeing the “tip of a gigantic iceberg.” Even the harshest critic of UK’s attempt to implement a nationwide EHR has been focussed on the business plans, difficulties of implementation, and cost. (2)

Several years ago a banker spent a day shadowing both an internist and a surgeon at our hospital as part of a Doctor-For-A-Day program and summed up his impression as: “A doctor’s  job seems to be a day-long search for credible data.” As long as we have well-trained clinicians providing our care, the help that computers will give them, and us as patients, in finding credible data will far out weigh any of the “new-found errors” (3) that will surely emerge as the new technology is implemented. The greatest threat to medical safety from computers will come from our trust in them, thinking that they are always right. A vigilant, skeptical clinician, and patient, is still the best defense against any subsequent harm from “computer error”.

References:

1. The Health Care Blog, “Do EHRs Kill People”, June 11, 2010, Margalit Gur-Arie
2. http://hcrenewal.blogspot.com/ – Health Care Renewal – a blog “addressing threats to health care’s core values, especially those stemming from        concentration and abuse of power”.
3.National Research Council, January 2009

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