Weighing the Pros and Cons of Patient Safety Technology

Although some emerging technology promises a patient safety cure-all, hospitals need to evaluate clinician workflow before implementing new gadgets.

In the 21st century, technology offers a solution to just about any everyday problem. Don’t know that actor that just came onto your screen? Log onto the IMDB app. Need directions? Just type the address into your phone.

Healthcare is no different. Emerging technologies promise to solve the industry’s biggest patient safety concerns, and sometimes they actually do, but not always. In some cases, healthcare technology can simplify complicated processes and improve care. In other situations, it can have negative consequences, particularly if hospitals fail to consider the technology’s impact on workflow.

Just like the technology we encounter in everyday life, healthcare technology can be beneficial, but only when it is appropriately integrated into the system in which it is used. Unfortunately, in their rush to purchase cutting-edge gadgets, hospitals often neglect this step.

“Workflow needs to be assessed and made more efficient, and if possible, standardized so that when you introduce the new technology, you’re not introducing something new into a bad process,” says Mary Logan, president and CEO of the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation (AAMI) in Arlington, Virginia. “You’re really looking at your process and making sure technology fits in with that, so it’s an opportunity to improve. Hospitals historically haven’t done that, but they need to.”

We have reviewed some of the new technology that’s making an impact in the patient safety world, as well as any evidence to support its impact. Perhaps more importantly, experts have outlined ways in which hospitals can evaluate important workflow considerations before purchasing or implementing any new technology that impacts patient care.

Evaluating workflow

It’s hard to not to get swept up in the wave of excitement that accompanies any new gadget, just walk by an Apple store during the release of a new iPhone® and you’ll see that enthusiasm firsthand.

Ultimately, however, there is no silver bullet. Any type of technology, whether it’s a new EHR software update or a surgical robot, is only as effective as the hospital’s process allows it to be.

“One of the critical challenges we see when new technology emerges is there is a lot of hoopla about it and people getting pretty excited and seeing this as a solution,” says Chris Lavanchy, engineering director of the health devices group at the ECRI Institute in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania. “And it can be. But the challenge, I think, is that people don’t realize on the outset what needs to be done on their part to make it work.”

Instead of looking at technology as the entire solution, hospitals should view it as one potential enhancement integrated into a larger process. Failing to do the legwork to ensure effective integration can lead to wasted expenditures on ineffective gadgets, or, worse, a disorganized process that leads clinicians to find potentially dangerous workarounds.

Hospitals should focus on six important factors before purchasing and implementing any new technology that impacts patient care:

Impact on humans: Any new technology needs to integrate seamlessly with the clinicians who are going to use it. For example, patient monitoring technology can be a useful way to alert clinicians if a patient on a PCA pump is suffering from respiratory depression, Lavanchy says. However, when this technology is implemented in a lower-acuity setting where clinicians are not used to monitoring patients or responding to alarms, it leads to negative consequences associated with alarm fatigue.