Can wireless reduce medical mistakes?

If implemented correctly, wireless technology could prevent the thousands of accidental deaths that occur each year in North American hospitals, a Montreal researcher said Wednesday.

Between 44,000 to 98,000 American patients die each year from preventable medical errors, said Bernard Segal,

an associate professor at McGill University’s otolaryngology department.

Segal, who is conducting research into wireless communications in hospitals, cited a report from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine during his presentation entitled “”Ensuring the safety of wireless informatics in healthcare”” at Ottawa’s Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario.

Studies show such medical errors result in more annual deaths than motor vehicle accidents, breast cancer or AIDS, Segal said. “”So it’s a huge problem.””

A big part of the problem entails medication errors, such as giving a patient the wrong drug, accidental overdoses, or an ill-timed dosage, said Segal.

“”The errors are due to the frequent lack of information or system problems in a complex organization,”” he said. “”Everything is always changing. Often, staff need information from a mobile location . . . so you need wireless to minimize these errors.””

One scenario that hospitals could employ is to attach barcode bracelets to patients and barcode stickers to their medication, said Segal. A wireless mobile device and barcode scanner could read both identifiers, send the information back to a central database and notify the user of any error.

Once hospital administrators and patients realize that the adoption of such technology can drive down operating costs and improve patient care, wireless communications will be increasingly accepted inside hospitals, said Segal, adding that medication errors in the U.S. have a direct cost of US$77 billion per year and US$105 billion in indirect annual costs. For a 700-bed hospital, this works out to US$2.8 million a year for medication errors alone, said Segal.

It’s something the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has already realized. In the next couple of years, it will look at mandating the use of barcode scanners on every injectable substance that enters patients.

However, others believe that systems can fail just as humans err. Raymond Woosley, chairman of pharmacology at Georgetown University Medical Center, has said if the wrong barcode is on a prescription drug, you may have even more errors.

Segal, who also heads a Health Canada Canada-US Task Force on Electromagnetic Compatibility in Health Care, acknowledged there are logistical barriers to introducing wireless technology in hospitals. Many centres currently ban wireless usage over concerns about electromagnetic interference and wireless security. The former deals with worries that new wireless equipment would interfere with the functionality of existing equipment that is much older.

But Herb Woods thinks there is nothing to worry about. “”These rules are created by people who have no idea of what they’re talking about,”” said the chair of the Ottawa Wireless Cluster. “”Cellphones aren’t going to interfere with any equipment. A cellphone user won’t walk into a room with a heart monitor and cause it to stop suddenly.””

Segal said the new Medical EMC Standard, 60601-1-2, “”will help us a great deal.””

The electromagnetic standard will make medical equipment more immune, and it gives guidelines to hospital staff on how to prevent interference by keeping radio frequency sources at sufficient distances from medical equipment, said Segal.

“”Interference won’t happen in the future,”” he added. “”I can say with great certainty that you can design wireless systems in hospitals so that they will not cause other medical devices to malfunction. The technology is there. The ways to prevent these malfunctions is well known. There’s general agreement internationally.””

But the problem is implementing such technology. Governments don’t like to regulate standards, said Segal. As well, Canada and the U.S lacks the expertise to help hospitals implement wireless communications.

“”So we need to develop expertise within Canada and the U.S. implement this. Hospitals are being cutback and, because of that, there’s not nearly as much expertise as we need.””

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