'Healthcare faces many of the same challenges as commercial businesses; the need for effective information solutions to drive better decision-making has never been more important than it is today'

HSJ recently held a.roundtable debate highlighting issues associated with patient safety (see 'Safe crackers'). What was most apparent to me from the debate.was the extent to which participants embraced the idea of information communication technology as a solution to many of the improvements we need to make across the NHS.

Healthcare faces many of the same challenges as commercial businesses; the need for effective information solutions to drive better decision-making has never been more important than it is today. The American statistician Professor William Edwards Deming understood that striving for quality not only reduced costs but also created better products and safer outcomes. We should strive to create healthy outcomes for patients with the same focus that Deming brought to manufacturing - that means a focus on the information associated with safe patient care.

Information is the crux of solutions such as the VitalPAC system, used by Portsmouth Hospitals trust to monitor patients' vital signs in real-time, ensuring that those needing urgent attention are automatically alerted to clinicians. This early intervention improves patient outcomes while reducing costs.

At a more strategic level is the common user interface that Microsoft is developing to support the national IT programme in the NHS. This is a design guide that provides user interface standards for all NHS IT interfaces, and aims to reduce clinical and administrative errors, as well as making the user interface.more familiar for staff. For example, it will provide a single standard for how dosage should be displayed or how much space should be left between different elements on a label so that it can be read clearly - eliminating the risk of misinterpretation.

One of the other key elements of patient safety discussed at the roundtable was the need for managers to have access to the right information - you cannot effectively tackle a problem until you really know what you're dealing with.

I refer to Sir Liam Donaldson's comments that what can seem like a series of unrelated, one-off incidents is actually due to an underlying common cause. The trouble is, without the ability to identify the trend and bring those incidents together - which may be happening over many years or across several hospitals - it is almost impossible to identify that common factor. As such, 'knowledge-driven healthcare' will be a key enabler for patient safety and information technology.will form the backbone of this.

We need, as a matter of urgency, further debate on the role of technology in both clinical and business decision-making in healthcare. Our peers in the business world will not thank us if we do not address the real-time needs of doctors and managers to make the right decisions in the short term and plan the right strategies in the long term. Patients will expect us to make informed, safe decisions on their behalf. Information is at the heart of this and the CEO and chairman need to lead change by example by demanding Deming-like standards from their organisations.

John Coulthard is director of healthcare for Microsoft.www.microsoft.com/uk/nhs