Poor communication costs hospitals big time

As you may have noticed, we cited a rather troubling statistic this week regarding one source of hospital financial troubles. The statistic? Apparently, according to researchers from the University of Maryland, poor communication in U.S. hospitals costs the nation $12 billion per year.

That loss, which equals about 2 percent of national hospital revenue, is more than half of the average hospital margin of 3.6 percent. In other words, more hospital margins might actually be healthy, and some might move from the red into profitability, if they could strip out this source of waste.

The research suggests that the biggest source of wasted time and money (54 percent) comes from unnecessarily long hospital stays that take place because patients must wait to be discharge. Researchers say much of this waste could be eliminated by investing in health IT solutions that could streamline communication among hospital caregivers.

For example, "location-based" technology that showed staff locations at all times, and systems letting nurses share communications with attending physicians, both looked like winners to the research team.

If they make changes like these, a typical 400-bed hospital could recoup $4 million, the U of Maryland educators project.

For what it's worth, I'm not convinced that simply installing some handy IT tools will inherently solve the problems identified in this research. After all, "human" communications issues--such as, say, a reluctance to page Dr. A because he's got nasty manners--can be as important, or even more important, than the medium staffers use to do the communicating.

What's more, health IT can work beautifully and still impose barriers to productivity if it doesn't adapt easily to existing work flow in your hospital. Everyone has lived through the installation of one shiny toy or another that seldom gets used, or isn't used to its full benefit. That can mean that the hospital has spent a lot to gain only a little.

All skepticism aside, however, it's certainly good to be reminded that communications problems can have a large, measurable effect on the profitability of your facility. Maybe this study can spark some worthwhile discussions among your management team--and perhaps help ferret out some important problems. - Anne