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July 2011

Accidents and Deaths Reveal Limits to Health Care Technologies

By Leslie Johnson:

For the past several years, the health care industry, as well as federal and state governments, have been aggressively pursuing converting a mostly paper-based system inherent in clinical care to a system that is handled completely electronically. In theory, this conversion would bring about an abundance of advantages to an industry that is seeking to heavily reform. Not only are more and more health care professionals and policy makers jumping on board, but the healthcare IT industry is big business as well. Indeed, as recently noted in Market Wire, the healthcare IT business is estimated to grow at an 18% rate annually until 2015. The article explained:

"EMR is a part of healthcare information technology that is used to make paperless computerized patient data in order to increase efficiency of hospital systems and reduce chances of errors in medical records. A substantial growth rate (more than 16%) of the U.S. healthcare IT spending and the government initiatives towards development of a nationwide healthcare information network are expected to push EMR implementation across the healthcare sector in the U.S. The rising demand for the healthcare cost containment and need to improve the quality of healthcare service are driving the growth of the EMR market in the U.S. The U.S. EMR market is expected to grow from $2,177 million in 2009 to $6,054 million in 2015 at an estimated CAGR of 18.1% during the forecast period 2010-2015."

Ironically enough, however, there very thing that health IT was designed to combat—reducing "chances of errors in medical records"—has, in some instances, caused the precise opposite. A recent Los Angeles Times article surveys a few recent instances in which technological errors that were not corrected have lead to death.

The more heartbreaking of these incidents was the story of newborn Genesis Burkett, who was killed when a pharmacist technician incorrectly entered data into the hospital's computer system. Burkett, who was born prematurely but was otherwise doing well, was administered a lethal dose of intravenous sodium chloride, over 60 times what the doctor had ordered. Burkett's parents are in the process of a lawsuit, although the hospital is pushing for a settlement.

Although cases like those of baby Genesis are indeed rare, they spotlight the need for additional oversight. One of the biggest problems with health IT cited has been the lack of communication among various groups that operate within a hospital. Despite hospitals working to create bridges between each area of the hospital, often communication errors occur as a result of a simple data entry mistake.

While there is no doubt that technology is pushing the healthcare system into a realm of greater efficiency, privacy, and, in some ways, safety, healthcare cannot afford to become an unquestioning champion of cyber-utopianism. There is too much at risk, and even a few lives lost is a few too many.

Author Bio:

This guest post is contributed by Leslie Johnson, who writes about health, green living, parenting related articles at masters in health administration.

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