3 steps to improving medical data error reporting

By Kristine Martin Anderson
09:27 AM
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As is often the case in life, we hope to learn from our mistakes, and not repeat them. The same could be said for our healthcare system.

Each year, medical errors affect millions of Americans. Medical errors — some mild, others more severe — cost the healthcare system an estimated $17.29 billion in wasteful spending. Unfortunately, only a fraction of medical errors and near-misses are actually reported — whether systematically or anecdotally — by providers to healthcare organizations, state, or national regulators.

Why? Many estimate that the fear of retribution, possible litigation, or financial consequences creates significant barriers to accurately reporting medical error data. In addition, patchwork systems of reporting, compounded by a lack of awareness by providers on how or where to report error data, create a disconnected healthcare ecosystem. Regardless of the reason, insufficient medical error data reporting and surveillance limits critical understanding and insights for the healthcare system. More systematic sharing of data could lead to more effective interventions and improved care, helping to save lives and reduce healthcare costs.

[Related: 7 ways meaningful use grew deeper roots in 2012]

Now, some progress has been made. The healthcare industry is steadily, albeit slowly, embracing quality measurement and patient safety. But more must be done. A paradigm shift is needed to increase and improve medical error data reporting. Enabled by an enhanced, robust health IT infrastructure, medical error data reporting and analysis can be become a more natural, less burdensome part of the healthcare system, leading to enormous improvements while maintaining patient privacy and security.

To get there, we'll need a coordinated, holistic strategy to report and capture medical data. Here are three actions to consider.

  1. Electronic health record (EHR) systems must evolve. Currently, medical error data reporting is not built-in to EHR systems. Rather, it requires additional, often paper-based, steps that only add to the burden facing health professional’s each day. Other industries have faced these types of challenges and used technology to solve them. Many new cars, for instance, now automatically call 911 on behalf of passengers following an accident, helping increase emergency response times. We need this type of intuitive solution in healthcare. We need to incorporate medical error data reporting into a clinician’s current workflow, allowing for almost automatic validation and reporting with the push of a button. A more intuitive, mature EHR interface, thoroughly integrated, could enable this type of automatic data reporting, eliminating extra, often cumbersome steps, for health professionals.
  2. The healthcare system must aggressively embrace mobile technologies and the potential these new platforms afford to capture and report data. According to a recent Cisco report, there will be 10 billion mobile devices in use around the world by 2016. So far, we’ve seen the potential of mobile health — to date, mobile healthcare technologies are helping to improve remote patient monitoring of chronic diseases and increasing rural access through telemedicine. As mobile health expands, we should build secure applications to accelerate error reporting, ensuring that we capture new sources of data and help inform healthcare professionals to make better decisions for patients. Example: Sepsis is a challenging and deadly infection, costing hospitals an estimated $28 billion each year. Studies have shown, however, that sepsis can often be identified early, based on active monitoring of common medical measures, such as a patient’s temperature and its rapid change. When sepsis is identified and treated early there is a significant reduction in mortality rates and associated hospital costs. Mobile technologies could allow for continuous monitoring of vital signs or other risk factors, and when appropriate, alert health professionals immediately through a mobile application on a patient’s condition, helping them to implement the right treatment strategy. Furthermore, this data could be reported for review and analysis, helping to prove and validate treatment strategies. When seconds often mean so much, mobile technologies offer enormous benefits to get the right data in the hands of healthcare professionals.
  3. We must combine a better reporting infrastructure and process with better analysis and insights. Improving reporting is just the first step; we must not let these new sources of data lie useless, compounding our existing "Big Data" problem in healthcare. Advanced tools, such as data analytics, pattern analysis, and natural language processing — tools that trace their origin to our intelligence community — can bring data alive, creating new insights on patient care and the effectiveness of treatments.

There is no way around it: Improving the quality and safety of the healthcare system will require transparent, consistent, and timely sharing of healthcare data for learning, analysis, and understanding. Improved medical error data reporting, enabled by health IT, moves us closer to this important goal.