Wireless health care may reduce medical errors

TORONTO – Wireless technology can reduce the incidence of death due to medical errors, but hospitals must consider issues of liability and electromagnetic compatibility in going mobile, an audience at the Wireless Healthcare Technology Summit heard Monday.

Dr. Bernard Segal, an

associate professor in McGill University’s department of otolaryngology, said as many as one in 200 people admitted to hospitals each year die from medical errors, in part because information — in cases of medication dispensation for example — is filtered through several parties.

“”Efficient use of informatics will minimize many of these areas, but it can’t get all of them. Wireless information is needed,”” he said.

Segal said wireless technologies have already made inroads into medical care, through voice transmission, telemedicine and telemetry (the measurement and transmission of data from remote sources). But what is coming, he said, is an integrative system where physicians will be notified wirelessly if test results turn up unexpected results or if prescribed medication doesn’t match the diagnosis.

“”Everything will be talking to everything else,”” he said. Which raises a new problem: increasing electromagnetic field levels.

Segal said the level of interference wireless devices have on medical equipment is largely unknown, with older hospital equipment a cause for special concern.

“”Medical devices stay in hospitals for a long time,”” he said. “”And at the same time, manufacturers were not concerned about electromagnetic compatibility.””

Hospitals are banning all wireless devices – including two-way pagers, cell phones, walkie-talkies and Blackberries, because they don’t have the money to examining their electromagnetic compatibility status, Segal said. But he suggested this approach will have to change.

“”Soon, wireless in hospitals will not be optional. You’re going to need it to prevent medical errors,”” Segal said. “”It’s going to be just as important as the sterilization room.””

Though researchers at McGill found the potential for electromagnetic interference with medical equipment is very high, Segal said the risk can be minimized through management of radio frequency sources, education and ad-hoc testing. These precautionary steps include relocating susceptible equipment especially unusually susceptible equipment and establishing zones for mobile devices.

David A. Townsend, a professor in the University of New Brunswick’s faculty of law, said taking steps to limit risk from interference will be crucial for hospitals because they would carry the greatest risk liability in cases of death or injury resulting from integration of medical and wireless devices.

“”My view is that hospitals would have the greatest responsibility to make a reasonable response,”” he said. “”This integration does raise electromagnetic interference concerns…not only do you have emitters and vulnerable equipment, but they’re often stacked on top of each other.””

But according to Townsend, following Segal’s precautionary prescription would probably be enough to shield a hospital from liability in cases of interference.

Townsend said hospitals need not worry about liability from radio frequency radiation – calling this more of a public relations and labour relations issue than a legal one – but should be concerned about interception of hospital data because of wireless transmissions.

He said the history of preventing interception is not great, as analog cellular transmissions were readily intercepted and digital cellular transmissions only slightly more difficult to steal. He added wireless standard 802.11b has had some known security weaknesses.

“”Most of these problems are close proximity problems,”” he said. “”But in health care, we have a problem of putting things in close proximity.””

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