Luddites and Errors and Barriers, Oh My!

Three separate studies published within the past few weeks make it pretty clear that the rapid pace of technological advancement too often comes to a screeching halt at the doors of clinical healthcare settings. That's astonishing.

Let's start with your doctor's office.

According to a Nielsen study conducted on behalf of two health-policy groups, the digital technology that most of us take for granted now for banking, shopping, or even just plain communicating, is, for the most part, not available when connecting with doctors. We're not even talking about sophisticated remote, wireless chronic-disease monitoring; the study says that the vast majority of doctors still don't even offer online appointments, use e-mail to communicate with patients, or send text reminders.

"All the functionality that we live our lives on isn't available in healthcare. You use your phone every day to send a text message or e-mail; you can't do that to over 90% of physicians. You take a picture, and you want to send it to someone; you can't do that [with doctors' offices] today," said Robert Pearl, chairman of the Council of Accountable Physician Practices.

It gets worse. The study indicates that approximately one-third of physicians said that telemedicine is not worth the hype.

I know it's a shocker, but patients surveyed said they want these basic tech-based services.

So, why are our doctor offices lagging behind the rest of the world, where you can order pizza with an emoji on your smartphone? Physician inertia, and the inability for their practices to bill for such technology, are two main reasons.

Another study found that nearly half of all surgeries at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) - one or our nation's top healthcare centers - involved some kind of medication error or unintended drug side effect that harmed a patient. The most frequent errors were mistakes in labeling of syringes, incorrect dosages and medications that should have been given but were not.

Despite having a bar-code system for labeling syringes-in place to avoid mistakes because many of the powerful sedatives, analgesics, and blood pressure medications administered during an operation are clear liquids-MGH surgical teams were not using it.

On average, 10 medications were given during an operation, according to the study. Some kind of error was made in about 1 out of 20 medications. That's one error during every other operation.

Operating rooms are high-pressure, fast-paced environments, there's no question about that. But wouldn't you think clinicians would want to take full advantage of technology solutions that can significantly prevent life-threatening errors? And malpractice suits?

Tejal Gandhi, president and chief executive of the National Patient Safety Foundation, summed up the study findings pretty well: "Boy, we still have a lot of work to do. If it happens at MGH, it can happen anywhere."

The last study speaks to a healthcare issue that, believe it or not, is far more common than medication mistakes or surgery on the wrong patient. According to a report issued by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), an estimated 12 million adults -about 5%of adults who seek outpatient care-will get a diagnosis that is wrong, or late, each year. Frequently, these errors come with tragic consequences.

Furthermore, the report says that most Americans will receive such a diagnosis at least once in their life.

Doctors will tell you that getting a diagnosis right is perhaps their toughest job, mostly because it involves a lot of moving parts. The IOM report committee determined that diagnostic errors happen because there isn't enough collaboration among clinicians, patients, and their families, clinicians only get limited feedback about the accuracy of their diagnoses, and the healthcare culture discourages transparency and the disclosure of errors.

Take note: the report also said that "health information technology may be contributing to diagnostic errors. More doctors' offices and health systems now have electronic health records, but clinicians often complain the systems are hard to use."

IBM's Watson could certainly help solve these diagnostic disasters, as I discussed in a blog in June.

Well, if technology is not the magic bullet for improving customer service in healthcare, then what is? I think you can make a very strong case that the time for patients to advocate for better technology-driven services and safer treatments for themselves and their families has arrived. There's no reason why those of us in healthcare marketing can't dream up an "I Want My MTV"-like initiative to help drive faster improvements.

To borrow Dr. Gandhi's phrase, we still have a lot of work to do.