Mark Thomson considers the role of newly available technologies in tackling patient safety

Few would disagree that patient safety in our hospitals must improve. Recent figures released by the NHS Information Centre showed that one in 50 of all patient stays are a result of complications of earlier care.

These complications include errors with medication, reactions to drugs and surgery. A significant proportion of these errors are avoidable. The National Patient Safety Agency has made great strides to tackle this issue but there is still much to be done.

One of the key areas of concern is medication errors, accounting for almost 10 per cent of all inaccuracies affecting patient safety. According to research, approximately 1,600 medication errors are reported in hospitals across the UK each week and yet, alarmingly, the NPSA estimates that the actual level of medication errors may be 10 times higher.

So how can new technologies help reduce these errors? And given the uncertainty around which computer systems will be introduced into hospitals under the NHS IT programme, is it pertinent to introduce these products now or in the future, as part of a coordinated plan?

The first step in avoiding medication errors is positive patient identification. In support of this, the NPSA has developed guidelines relating to patient wristbands. Sophisticated versions of these wristbands now exist.

For example, the bar coded wristband, printed on a Zebra HC100 is long-lasting, remains readable throughout a patient’s stay in hospital and contains an antimicrobial-coating, to fight infection. Scanning the bar code gives you immediate, automated access to patient information – helping prevent errors and improve patient safety.

These wristbands are just one of the numerous new products contributing to increased patient safety while at the same time improving efficiency, reducing costs and providing an audit trail of the patient’s care.

What other products are on offer?

A variety of small, easy to operate mobile printers able to print data and bar codes on a range of labels now exist, which mean that all patient information relating to medications, specimen collection and clinical procedures can be printed and checked at the point of care. Scanning and cross-checking the bar codes ensures that the right patient is receiving the right medication or procedure at the right time.

As a further back-up, smart card or bar-coded staff ID badges can be used to ensure that in the unlikely event of an error, there is a clear audit trail. Essentially, these new technologies eliminate the two main causes of errors – handwritten notes and conducting patient administration away from the patient bedside.

The advantages of introducing these types of systems are proven. It is estimated that the bar-coded system can reduce errors by as much as 80 per cent. An additional benefit is significant time saving – a healthcare organisation based in the US, operating eight not-for-profit hospitals, reported a time saving of 2.75 hours per 12-hour nursing shift after switching to the bar code-based system.

These products are part of an end to end data management solution aimed at increasing safety throughout a patient’s journey, as well as improving efficiency and ensuring accountability at all times. They are part of the shift towards mobile technology and can work independently of or in synergy with computers on wheels, which are becoming increasingly common in our hospitals.

There is still some uncertainty as to which computer system hospitals will need to adopt as part of the NHS IT programme. Even less certain is what impact a change in government would have on the programme. Regardless of these uncertainties, however, each strategic health authority and individual hospitals can take advantage of these new technologies now, as they are compatible with all computer systems.

The impact of technological innovation is being felt across all industries. The possibilities seem endless and given the incredible advances over the past 10 years, from iphones to infrared thermal imaging technology, who knows where it will end.

Yet, no matter how much flexibility these devices have brought to everyday life, surely our health should be the first thing to benefit from technological innovations.

Technology is constantly evolving, it is important therefore to welcome and take advantage of new technology as it becomes available, as there will never be a final and “here-to-stay” product.

Even small, relatively inexpensive products can provide tremendous safety and time-saving benefits.