Wednesday, March 25, 2015

New York Times Opinion: Why Health Care Tech Is Still So Bad

This was an opinion piece published 21 March 2015 in the New York Times written by Robert M. Wachter, Professor of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco and author of "The Digital Doctor: Hope, Hype, and Harm at the Dawn of Medicine’s Computer Age” also published in the New York Times.

Here's the link to the article:

I have commented on several quotes from the article.

1. "Even in preventing medical mistakes — a central rationale for computerization — technology has let us down. (My emphasis.) A recent study of more than one million medication errors reported to a national database between 2003 and 2010 found that 6 percent were related to the computerized prescribing system.

At my own hospital, in 2013 we gave a teenager a 39-fold overdose of a common antibiotic. The initial glitch was innocent enough: A doctor failed to recognize that a screen was set on “milligrams per kilogram” rather than just “milligrams.” But the jaw-dropping part of the error involved alerts that were ignored by both physician and pharmacist. The error caused a grand mal seizure that sent the boy to the I.C.U. and nearly killed him.

How could they do such a thing? It’s because providers receive tens of thousands of such alerts each month, a vast majority of them false alarms. (My emphasis.) In one month, the electronic monitors in our five intensive care units, which track things like heart rate and oxygen level, produced more than 2.5 million alerts. It’s little wonder that health care providers have grown numb to them."

Comments: Before I read the third paragraph, I was thinking How can you blame the computer when it provided you with an alert regarding the prescribing error that you made? 

It is well known that systems that produce a high percentage of false alarms, that those alarms over time will be ignored or discounted. I consider this is a devastating indictment. We must do better.

I have been a human factors engineer and researcher for decades. One of the mantras of human factors is preventing errors. That's central to what we're about. But if the systems we help engineer generate false alarms at a rate that has our users ignoring the correct ones, then we have failed and failed miserably.

I think the problem of false alarms requires further research and commentary.

2. "... despite the problems, the evidence shows that care is better and safer with computers than without them."

Commentary: This is nice to read, but we as medical technologists need to do better. We really need to follow up on the repercussions of our technology we create when it's deployed and used in the field.

3. "Moreover, the digitization of health care promises, eventually, to be transformative. Patients who today sit in hospital beds will one day receive telemedicine-enabled care in their homes and workplaces."

Commentary: I agree. Of course that's a central theme of this blog.

4. "Big-data techniques will guide the treatment of individual patients, as well as the best ways to organize our systems of care. ... Some improvements will come with refinement of the software. Today’s health care technology has that Version 1.0 feel, and it is sure to get better.

... training students and physicians to focus on the patient despite the demands of the computers.

We also need far better collaboration between academic researchers and software developers to weed out bugs and reimagine how our work can be accomplished in a digital environment."

Commentary: Agreed again. But, I believe that technologist just can't dump these systems into the healthcare environments without significant follow-up research to insure that these systems provide or suggest the correct treatment programs and effectively monitor patients. Investment in systems like these will be cost effective and improve lives, but only if the necessary level of care and follow-up is performed.

5. "... Boeing’s top cockpit designers, who wouldn’t dream of green-lighting a new plane until they had spent thousands of hours watching pilots in simulators and on test flights. This principle of user-centered design is part of aviation’s DNA, yet has been woefully lacking in health care software design."

Commentary: All this is true. And as noted above that it would be a good idea to do more extensive research on medical systems before we deploy them to the field as well. That this is not done may be a regulatory issue that the FDA has not required the kind of rigorous research as performed in aircraft cockpit design. They should require more research in real or simulated environments. Right now, all that appears to be required is a single verification and single validation test before allowing commercialization. I think it would be valuable for regulators to require more research in real or simulated settings before allowing companies to commercialize their products.

Or, requiring more extensive follow-up research. Grant companies the right to sell their medical products on a probationary basis for (say) 1 year after receiving initial commercialization certification. During that year, the company must perform follow-up research on how their medical product performs in real environments. If there are no significant problems ... such as overly abundant number of false alarms ... then the product no longer on probation and would be considered fully certified for commercialization.
However, if significant problems emerge, the FDA could:

a) continue to keep the product in a probationary status pending correction of those problems and another year of follow-up research or

b) it could require the withdrawal of the product from sale. A product that had been withdrawn would have to go through the entire commercialization certification process just as if it were a new product before commercialization and sale would be allowed.

A final thought ... I think there's a reality in commercial aviation that is not true in medicine. If commercial aircraft killed and injured as many people as are killed and injured by medical practitioners, then the commercial aviation would come to a halt. People would refuse to fly because they perceive it to be too dangerous. But, if you're sick, then you have little choice but the clinic, ER or hospital.

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