Five Digital Health Imperatives for Patient Safety


The most discussed issues in healthcare today are cost savings and access to care.  There is no denying their rightful preeminence in the public discourse.  Something which has received more attention in the past but has been surpassed by the aforementioned topics in both lay and healthcare policy press has been patient safety. Perhaps the best definition of patient safety is that of the World Health Organization. Simply put, it is “…the prevention of errors and adverse effects to patients associated with health care.” Patient safety initiatives have taken many forms. Most are aware of public awareness (ex. healthcare worker hand washing) and regulatory clinical requirements (ex. wrong site/procedure/ person surgeries) publicized in the past. Digital tools now present opportunities for unprecedented improvements in patient safety. I would like to highlight a few.

  1. Improving health literacy. Health literacy is defined as the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health  What does health literacy have to do with patient safety? People who do not know their diagnoses when they leave an office visit or hospital (some estimates are 60%) or do not know the reasons for each medication they are prescribed are much more likely to be non-adherent to medical advice or recommended treatment regimens. In fact, low health literacy is related to higher mortality rates. In a post I wrote here in 2012, I discussed some of the implications of low health literacy. In one study last year examining the extent of use of digital health tools in relation to health literacy, it was found that those subjects with low health literacy used these tools less. Though there is much to be desired regarding the analysis in this study, the authors are to be commended for the number of participants (>5000) and for highlighting how health literacy and digital technology can affect each other.  According to the Department of Health and Human Services, only 12 percent of US adults are health literate. Improving health literacy via digital tools is not only an opportunity it is necessary. The 15 or 20 minute office visit does not afford even the best physician to explain a diagnosis or proposed treatment plan in a digestible way a patient and caregiver deserve. Language barriers compound the health literacy dilemma. There is a well-established legal framework for language access. The cost to providers and inaccessibility outside of the clinic or hospital make mainstream language translation technology insufficient to close gaps in care.  Mobile non-human digital language translation tools will hopefully soon become the preferred alternative.
  2. The use of AI in workflow. There’s been a lot of buzz about artificial intelligence (AI). The present popular conversations surrounding AI involve speculation whether AI will replace humans in every possible aspect of healthcare. There are even statistics bantered about as to percentage of physicians, nurses, and others who will lose their jobs to AI technology.  That aside, AI can have a significant role in improving patient safety.  Medtronic, Masimo, and others are working with the Patient Safety Movement Foundation by sharing de-identified data from medical devices in designing predictive analytics programs with the ultimate goal of improving patient safety. Many software platforms exist which claim they improve patient safety but evidence is scarce.  In advertizing their software, many companies equate hospital readmissions with a patient safety metric though strictly speaking it isn’t by the definition above unless it is related to a complication of treatment rendered during the prior hospitalization. Predictive analytics and other AI may however be relevant to patient safety by gathering data from the patient’s EHR (and heaven help us one day from data sets of other systems) to predict both minor and major preventable adverse events. AI platforms have the opportunity to make all the data about a patient come to life, integrate and provide a real-time picture of what is happening to the patient and provide alerts which might change treatment. AI is technology which needs to be incorporated into workflows which themselves are designed with maximum patient safety in mind. In this manner, the human aspect in patient safety is still important.
  3. The use of digital tools for inventory and other tracking. Inventory tracking in both the enterprise and ambulatory clinic is an important patient safety issue.  Equipment servicing schedules, drug, medical device, patient and personnel tracking and other logistical considerations are important in patient safety. RFID and other advanced digital technologies have been developed to help in this regard.
  4. Improving the electronic medical record (EHR). A 2016 study published in the Journal of Patient Safety demonstrated a 17-30% reduction of in-hospital adverse events in patients with cardiovascular diagnoses, pneumonia or a diagnosis leading to surgery when a fully electronic EHR is used. Specifically the adverse events included hospital-acquired infections, adverse drug events (based on selected medications), and post-procedural events. As this studied playing field has leveled today with the vast majority of institutions utilizing completely electronic records, there exist yet more opportunities for improving patient safety with EHR associated technologies. One hot button issue is that of matching of patients with their own EHR record. The challenge lies in the strong legislative opposition to a unique national patient identifier.  To this end the Office of the National Coordinator has launched a Patient Matching Algorithm Challenge.  Other ways in which the EHR can improve patient safety involve the use of AI (see above). Input from patients in reviewing their records via the patient portal is arguably the first place to start.
  5. IT security. IT security is a direct and indirect threat to patient safety. This has been demonstrated with cardiac implantable electronic devices and recent global IT hacking which involved hospital systems. A technology called blockchain was developed in 2008 and has found its biggest interest in the financial industry. The use of blockchain in healthcare has been discussed for a number of years.  However there exist significant challenges in the utilization of blockchain for patient records.

While popular discussions focus on health insurance coverage, shortcomings of EHRs and the health system in general, we must never lose sight of what should be the focus of care itself, patients.  Healthcare must be accessible, affordable, efficient, of high quality with good outcomes and most of all as safe as possible. Patient safety should always be a metric of good care and new programs and technologies.

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About davidleescher

David Lee Scher, MD is Founder and Director at DLS HEALTHCARE CONSULTING, LLC, which specializes in advising digital health technology companies, their partners, investors, and clients. As a cardiac electrophysiologist and pioneer adopter of remote patient monitoring, he understood early on the challenges that the culture and landscape of healthcare present to the development and adoption of digital technologies. He is a well-respected thought leader in mobile and other digital health technologies. Scher lectures worldwide on relevant industry topics including the role of tech in Pharma, patient advocacy, standards for development and adoption, and impact on patients and healthcare systems from clinical, risk management, operational and marketing standpoints. He is a Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine at Penn State College of Medicine.
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