HIMSS 2017: ECRI, Bon Secours on the future of health information technology to support patient safety

Patricia Sengstack of Bon Secours Health System and the ECRI Institute's Bill Marella and Ronni Solomon discuss the current state of patient safety and the role of health IT.

ORLANDO, Fla.—Technology will play a crucial role in helping hospitals and health systems maintain a focus on patient safety, building on a movement that has emerged as a priority within the healthcare industry over the past two decades. 

Healthcare has been increasingly focused on patient safety and medical errors since the Institute of Medicine’s landmark report in 1999, “To Err is Human,” which brought to light concerning patient safety statistics that were lingering in the background. During a session at HIMSS 2017 in Orlando, representatives with the ECRI Institute and Bon Secours Health System outlined some of the ways technology has both helped and hurt patient safety initiatives, and how health IT is poised to assist care improvement efforts over the next decade if providers are willing to adopt a collaborative approach with IT professionals.

William Marella, executive director of PSO Operations and Analytics at ECRI, said the flood of data created by the widespread adoption of EHRs is “like drinking from a fire hose.” But that data has also created opportunities to identify patient safety weaknesses that were previously undiscoverable.

“What is needed now is ways to synthesize that and put it in front of people who can take action,” he said.

Marella added that although the elevated focus on patient safety has already saved countless lives and reduced infections by standardizing care and improving processes, sustainability is often a concern once a hospital initiative ends and clinicians move on to tackle another issue. That’s where technology may be able to help.

“Health IT has the promise of being able to hardwire some of those things in,” he said.

Patricia Sengstack, chief nursing informatics officer for the Bon Secours Health System and the former deputy CIO and chief of clinical informatics at the National Institutes of Health, said she envisions EHRs taking on a more influential role in patient care by incorporating clinical decision support, predictive analytics and patient generated data, all of which will be used to leverage precision medicine.

Both Sengstack and Marella expressed optimism over new gadgets like artificial intelligence, language processing and a robotic concierge that could prevent harm if used appropriately. Sengstack admitted that as a nurse, she had “mixed feelings about high-tech, high-touch innovation” such as robots, but acknowledged that it may play a supportive role in the healthcare environment.

RELATED: C-suiters—Keep an eye on these technologies in 2017

But she also said the industry still has a lot of work to do to “clean up the clutter” within existing IT systems, which requires more collaboration between IT and clinical departments. She noted that the majority of hospitals still do not have a formal health IT safety committee, and Marella urged providers to include IT and informatics staff in conversations about medical errors, particularly since many errors might not be immediately recognized as IT-related.

“Integrating health IT with an existing patient safety program is the best way to prioritize what’s causing you the most problems,” Marella said, noting that the answer is different depending on the health system.