The bewildering variety of new medical devices in U.S. hospitals promises higher standards of care. But it also poses new opportunities for error. A growing number of physicians believe that the interoperability of medical devices–their ability to communicate with each other–could make hospitals safer and more efficient.
“Today, there are many proprietary systems available from different vendors, but the problem is, these systems can’t talk to one another,” says Douglas Rosendale, a surgeon who works on information integration at Veterans Health Administration and Harvard Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “If they can’t interface, then they can’t share information, which could have an impact on patient care.” Estimates of the number of preventable deaths caused each year by medical errors in American hospitals range from 98,000 to 195,000.
Julian Goldman, director of the Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology’s Medical Device Interoperability Program, based at Massachusetts General Hospital, has developed two demonstration projects that illustrate the idea of the “plug and play” operating room. The first project is an integrated ventilator. A common problem in hospitals is taking chest x-rays of patients on ventilators, says Goldman. To keep the lungs’ movements from blurring the image, doctors must manually turn off the ventilator for a few seconds to take the x-ray. But then they run the risk of inadvertently leaving the ventilator off for too long, says Goldman.
To simulate an x-ray machine, Goldman used a webcam, which he connected to a ventilator and a computer. He synched the camera with the ventilator so that it would capture images only when the ventilator was at the point of full inhalation or exhalation. Goldman says that as a result of his demonstration, standards for ventilators are in the process of being revised so that future versions of the devices will include a pause function and will be subject to network control, moving toward interoperability.
“That’s an example where you actually avoid the risk by simply not having to turn off the ventilator at all,” says Peter Szolovits, a professor of computer science at MIT who studies medical data integration. “In other cases where you have a bunch of data simultaneously, you can do a better job of trying to understand what’s going on with the patient,” he says.
Device interoperability could also reduce the large number of false alarms that nurses must contend with. “If you go into an ICU, it’s a madhouse,” says Szolovits. “There are alarms going off constantly, because each alarm is separate from the others, so none of them have an integrated view of what’s going on with the patient.” If the data from medical monitors were integrated, he says, alarms would be more likely to indicate something truly important.