The dangerous decade
Published Online First 24 November 2011
Enrico Coiera, Jos Aarts, Casimir Kulikowski
Over the next 10 years, more information and communication technology (ICT) will be deployed in the health system than in its entire previous history. Systems will be larger in scope, more complex, and move from regional to national and supranational scale. Yet we are at roughly the same place the aviation industry was in the 1950s with respect to system safety. Even if ICT harm rates do not increase, increased ICT use will increase the absolute number of ICT related harms. Factors that could diminish ICT harm include adoption of common standards, technology maturity, better system development, testing, implementation and end user training. Factors that will increase harm rates include complexity and heterogeneity of systems and their interfaces, rapid implementation and poor training of users. Mitigating these harms will not be easy, as organizational inertia is likely to generate a hysteresis-like lag, where the paths to increase and decrease harm are not identical.
The perspective piece then opens with this:
There is a paradox in the relationship between information and communication technology (ICT) and patient safety. ICT can improve the quality, safety and effectiveness of clinical services and patient outcomes,1 although the evidence base for this is sometimes weak.2 As a consequence, the rapid deployment of ICT on a national scale is a priority for many nations faced with a diminishing clinical workforce, increasing workloads, and resource constraints. 3 4However, ICT use can also lead to patient harm.5 Many commentators have raised concerns that ICT has yet to deliver on its promises,6 or that the rapid adoption of ICT is a risk.7 7a Errors persist in clinical practice even after ICT is introduced,8 because manual processes co-exist with the automated, and the interfaces between the two are seldom perfect. Others counter that such overemphasis on ICT-related harm only delays the implementation of a crucial technology that will save lives.9It appears that we are caught in a bind. The demands for health system reform are now so compelling that there appears no choice but to implement complex ICT on a large, often national, scale. Yet these ICT systems appear less mature than we would like and our understanding about how to implement and use them safely remains in its infancy. As such, we are faced with a pressing policy challenge on both the national and international stages.10
They raise these rhetorical questions:
... Where is the ‘kill switch’ in our health ICT systems when large-scale privacy breaches are occurring, or large volumes of critical patient data are being corrupted? Who is authorized to activate such a switch?
The answers to these questions are, quite frankly: nowhere, and nobody. What we have instead is an environment of 'irrational exuberance' -- as well as 'rational exuberance', i.e., opportunism, often of a pecuniary nature.
To the authors' other observations I would add that:
1) "Organizational inertia" is probably too narrow a concern. I would broaden it to "cultural inertia", especially since the health IT "ecosystem" is grossly lacking of a culture of safety and accountability;
2) The authors note that "Predicting the actual harm rate and total patient harms that we will see through the use of ICT in healthcare over the next decade is currently not possible."
While I agree, and agree this inability needs to be remediated, extrapolations can be performed to achieve estimates. Regarding increased ICT use increasing the absolute number of related harms, that number could already be quite substantial as I wrote in an April 16, 2010 thought experiment at "If The Benefits Of Healthcare IT Can Be Guesstimated, So Can And Should The Dangers."
Ironically and tragically, that post was written just five days before I wrote a confidential warning letter to a hospital about EHR deficiencies I'd noted in my mother's care there, and just one month before she was severely injured at that hospital by an EHR-related error of a nature as identified in the letter. Thus, the numbers in the thought experiment should be incremented accordingly;
3) I would say regarding safety that the health IT sector is roughly in the same place as aviation was in the 1920's (e.g., unregulated, experimental technology abounding), not the 1950's, and as the maritime passenger service was in ca. 1912 (April to be precise); and
4) The authors observe that "There is however caution in the [2011 IOM] report [on health IT safety here, PDF] that safety regulations would impede industry innovation, an argument which would literally not fly in the aviation industry ... the caution toward recommending regulation may however be misplaced. Simply put, if healthcare wants the benefits of ICT then it must actively manage its risks."
I strongly agree that the IOM's cautions on regulation are misplaced, as I wrote here. Robust regulation could diminish ICT harm as in pharmaceuticals and medical devices (and aviation).
Innovation will not be harmed, and the IT industry needs to -- and can afford to -- accept the responsibilities and obligations of being involved in healthcare. See for example "No More Soft Landings For Software: Liability for Defects in an Industry That Has Come of Age" (PDF), Zollers, McMullin et al., Santa Clara Computer & High Technology Law Journal, Vol. 21 No. 4, 2005.