Technology lifeline for patient safety

During a six month period in 2013, over 40,000 patients experienced "significant" harm while in NHS care. Over 700,000 patient safety incidents were reported in total.

Many of these incidents are viewed as avoidable. There is no solution to prevent all such cases, but a more widespread adoption of patient-centric technology could play a key role in reducing these figures. By 'patient-centric technology' I mean systems and solutions, in many cases web-based, which have been developed with the patient's healthcare journey as their starting point and not as a mere by-product.

One example is electronic prescribing - replacing potentially ambiguous hand-written paper prescriptions with clear and incontrovertible electronic forms. Last year, NHS England estimated that adopting electronic prescribing could reduce prescription errors by as much as 50%. This is significant, as medication errors are the second most likely cause of significant patient safety incidents. Reducing errors should reduce both harm and costly waste.

Results in the field are already backing up the theory. In East Sussex, for example, hospital pharmacists are able to input data directly onto tablets while consulting with patients on the wards, eliminating the potential for hand written errors or duplicated information. The process also makes dispensary workflows more efficient - ultimately ensuring that patients get the correct drugs, more quickly. Meanwhile in East London, the E12 Health Centre has found "errors and lost scripts" to be a "thing of the past", since adopting electronic prescribing.

Electronic patient record systems also have an important role to play in achieving patient safety targets, in particular health secretary Jeremy Hunt's aim to reduce avoidable deaths within the NHS.

A good illustration of how this can improve patient care is in Bristol. Here, a patient record sharing agreement between local GP practices and A&E departments has already demonstrably improved safety and even saved lives by enabling A&E clinicians to immediately view essential patient data and therefore gain a clear understanding of medications/long-term conditions that could influence vital treatment timings and other decisions.

Sceptics might argue that better care through secure records access, though desirable, is a 'soft' objective in the mission to improve patient safety and that attention should focus on matters such as infection control. Whilst agreeing that such 'hard' objectives are also important I would suggest that the softer benefits of patient-centric technology are so huge that we should concentrate on soft and hard objectives in equal measure. The two should not be regarded as mutually exclusive: it is the outcome that counts after all.

Take Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust. Here, the electronic records sharing system enables the Occupational Health (OH) department - a multidisciplinary team of nurse practitioners, consultants, psychiatrists, psychologists and administration professionals - to securely access and update the OH records of the Trust's 25,000 staff and students. Why is this relevant to patient safety? The system allows the OH team to track and update records in real time as part of infection prevention and control procedures. It's a forward thinking approach with tangible benefits to both NHS staff and the patients they treat.

I look forward to a time where examples such as this are the norm, rather than best-practice case studies. I firmly believe that day will come, and when it does I have no doubt that we will not only have witnessed significant improvements in patient safety but also significant cost reductions for the NHS.

This article was written by Chris Spencer.

The original article can be read on The Huffington Post.