Medical Device Integration Can Improve Productivity
Medical Device integration can improve productivity and reduce cost of providing care. Health care has been in the news for the last year, quite prominently, but most of the reporting has been about politics, new legislation and what are called macroeconomic effects of medical care in the U.S. However, for the doctors, nurses, IT personnel and, especially, Chief Information Officers (CIOs) that provide and manage the care and the facilities involved, other subjects are much more important. Even this far into the much-ballyhooed Third Millennium and the reigning Information Age, medical professionals are still seeking to close the digital divide separating essential medical devices from their electronic medical records.
When Massachusetts General Hospital (Mass General) designed the so-called Operating Room of the Future all the way back in 2002 (ages ago in technology time), they worked long and hard on ways to integrate all the information coming from the various devices in the OR. They noted that the lack of plug-and-play standards and the difficulty of achieving interoperability of the devices and multiple information flows were serious barriers to progress. Some progress has been made since then, especially in cardiology and radiology, but more needs to be done even there, in addition to the other operating environments needing point-of-care systems.
From IT and clinical perspectives, the need to merge medical device data in to Electronic Medical Records (EMR) is critically important. The problem has been the lack of a standard for data exchange. There are scores of different device manufacturers with their own proprietary operating systems, and finding a cost-effective means of connecting everything was not a simple challenge. However, it was not a challenge that could be delayed or overlooked, as it went to the core of many health care problems, such as management overhead and problematic data access.
Without connectivity between EMR and device data, medical personnel resort to any number of inefficient and risky activities, like scrawling vital signs on paper and manually updating charts for patients. This not only delays the delivery of vital information (literally), there is a greater possibility of human error, with typos, misspellings or numbers being transposed or left out. This is the major weakness of manual-entry systems, and it is what is to be overcome by new means of medical device integration.
Standards on the way?
Mass General’s 2002 trial program led to the creation of the Medical Device Plug-and-Play Interoperability Program, which works to develop, implement and popularize industry-wide standards. The playing field is larger than any individual medical center, as patients move and EMR data needs to follow them wherever they go. If every hospital develops its own system, there will be internal connectivity, but little ability to interact and work with other medical centers. This speaks to the need for a simplified, easily instituted approach such as is available now from leading device integration firms.
There are also some EMR vendors that have addressed the connectivity issue from their side of the equation, but the problem of standardization is not solved in their approach. The future seems to be one where hospitals will begin by using third-party integrators, and then work through industry and trade groups to come to an agreement on data-exchange standards and other operational guidelines. Some vendors want to push their own so-called middle-ware solutions, but this is only a band-aid on the problem. The real solution lies in standards and the creation of intuitive software that can be learned by medical personnel in a short time.
Various software vendors are working to perfect what they call interface engines, which allow connection to hundreds of different devices. They automate the collection of data from bedside, OR and mobile vital signs monitors and translate that data into a standard format. Before the information is forwarded to the EMR system, doctors, nurses and/or other clinicians can review and approve it. This kind of automation is already quite popular with medical personnel, as is anything that speeds the transfer of life-saving data. Medical professionals want to treat patients, not struggle with technology. (That is what IT people are for.)
Clearly, productivity and patient outcomes will both improve when information is handled in a more efficient manner. Medical device integration, and the implementation of systems to feed the device data into the EMR system, is a major item on the national health care to-do list. It is arguably more important than political wrangling, which is why health care professionals are focusing so much energy and attention on it.
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