Healthcare industry continues quest for connectivity

September 1, 2008

The healthcare industry is calling for greater connectivity, or interoperability standards to increase adoption, safety and implementation.

Communication between medical systems is a key factor in providing quality healthcare, and the industry is calling for greater connectivity, or interoperability standards to increase adoption, safety and implementation.

A 2006 study from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) reveals that medication errors affect 1.5 million patients every year in U.S. hospitals, resulting in approximately 7,000 deaths annually. Medication errors typically occur during two critical stages – when medication is ordered and when medication is administered, and greater interoperability facilitates patient safety by enabling errors to be addressed at the point of care.

Integration shows promise

Interoperability improves patient safety by limiting the amount of manual information a clinician must enter into a computer or device. When a clinician orders medication for a patient, the patient's drug information is transferred electronically from the network to a medical device such as an infusion system. The patient's electronic medical record can be automatically updated with the new medication data. This level of automation is only possible when the medical devices are appropriately connected, or interoperable.

To further enhance patient safety, safety software, which is integrated into the infusion pump, can verify that the dose programmed by the clinician is within the limits of the hospital's drug library.

Connectivity between devices can also help improve the time it takes to respond to a potentially adverse drug event. If a nurse is working on the second floor, a pager can send an alert that an alarm is sounding on the fourth floor.

Additionally, wireless connectivity enables quicker maintenance and drug library updates on every device from one central location.

Integration via standardization

Today's medical devices are not 100% interoperable with hospital systems. When a hospital wants to upgrade or improve its IT network, it must collaborate with the device manufacturer and the IT vendor, selecting devices based on how well they integrate with the hospital's existing technology infrastructure.

As a result, customers are demanding greater interoperability. The pressure from rising healthcare costs, increased hospital errors and a shrinking workforce are placing greater emphasis on the need for improved connectivity.

To increase interoperability, communication standards must be established. For example, Integrating the Healthcare Enterprise, an initiative by healthcare professionals to improve the way computer systems share medical information, has already developed standards, including DICOM and HL7, that help medical devices communicate more openly.

Organizations in the industry are also pushing legislation to increase government funding for healthcare IT initiatives that help integrate patient data from varying sources to enhance patient safety and clinician efficiency.

Connectivity is key

Interoperability impacts the entire spectrum of healthcare IT. From hospital administrators to device manufacturers and IT vendors, the benefits of standardization are inescapable. Connectivity transforms the communication process and creates a more efficient system for clinicians to collect and share patient data.

As medical device standards continue to evolve, hospital administrators will find more effective ways to optimize their IT infrastructures. Therefore, the benefits of interoperability show great promise for IT advocates and hospital executives.

Interoperability offers a wining outcome for practitioners and hospital administrators searching for ways to provide quality care through:

A connected future

Some industry estimates expect devices with integrated standards to begin rolling off the assembly line as early as 2009. As hospitals reap the rewards of going high-tech, the desire for streamlined technology will increase.

Eventually, device-to-computer systems will make vital signs, medication charts, historic health records and allergies available from one computer screen. Likewise, device-to-device communications will enable diagnostic products to control the therapy. A glucose monitor, for example, could tell an infusion pump to slow the insulin drip.

Interoperability is crucial to providing safe, quality care, and when medical devices work together, practitioners and patients both win. While interoperability challenges currently exist, a cooperative industry environment is on the horizon, bringing with it a new era in healthcare technology.

Jeff Pelletier is vice president, alliance and portfolio management, at Hospira, a global specialty pharmaceutical and medication delivery company based in Lake Forest, Ill.

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