Putting pen to paper
During my time working in tech support for a practice software developer following university, it became very apparent just how poorly understood basic computing technology was at the time. Early print editions of Pulse+IT spoke very much about these themes, with practical articles about scanners, monitors, printers, RAID and UPS all garnering lots of interest.
Eleven and a bit years later, computer hardware is rarely even talked about as an issue, with improvements to processing power, memory and storage capacity, and battery life having been so steady over the past decade that it is unlikely that your shiny new device is the limiting factor in your workflows.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and perhaps will be for decades to come, the ability for the myriad pieces of hardware and software systems used in the health sector to talk to each other remains elusive, whether it be be within a general practice or hospital ward, or from one healthcare facility to another.
In this time I’ve been fortunate to have had very little direct exposure to the health system in the capacity of a patient or carer, but thanks to a fairly nasty bacterial infection, I’ve been following my partner on a healthcare journey these past few weeks.
Having had a sore throat on Monday, and vomiting on Tuesday morning, she presented at a pharmacy with painful inflammation on her ribs under one arm. The pharmacist arranged an urgent appointment with a nearby GP, who sent her straight to the emergency department. By the time I arrived in the early afternoon, she had had chest X-rays and had been seen by multiple doctors – each one more senior than the last – and by midnight they had admitted her without a definitive diagnosis.
I don’t recall seeing a computer during the many hours I was in the emergency department that day, but given my professional interest in such things, I did find doctor number five’s comment to my partner – “you’ll have to start your story from scratch as I can’t read their writing”, pointing to the day’s worth of notes the previous doctors and nurses had made – worthy of a chuckle.
The next morning I was called to the ICU, where she had been transferred, and by 10am surgical consent forms were being signed in preparation to stop the spread of what the doctors suspected, correctly, was a nasty case of necrotising fasciitis. Is there any other kind?
Following her surgery, my partner was hooked up to barrage of infusion pumps and monitors, all exporting their data via a sophisticated eyeball-to-hand-to-pen interface, onto the largest piece of paper I’ve encountered since Pulse+IT was in print. The integration even supported pictures, with doctors and nurses able to see at a glance trends in temperature (or perhaps it was heart rate, or blood pressure?) thanks to carefully hand-drawn lines linking hand-drawn dots on the page.
I’m certainly not a zealot when it comes to technology, and if a pen and paper is the most efficient way to perform a task, I’m all for it. But for the same reasons that handwriting was effectively eliminated from GP prescribing decades ago, it does strike me as strange that in a ward dedicated to patients that require around the clock one-on-one nursing, fairly large and potentially unsafe technology gaps are evident.
Two weeks and five surgeries later, I’m pleased to report that things are progressing well for my partner thanks to the excellent care she has received in the hospital. As an outsider looking in, it’s not apparent that health IT has had much of a positive impact on her treatment regime, but nor does it seem the lack of computerisation in what seem like fairly obvious clinical areas has been detrimental to her care either.
Of course other patients don’t always enjoy the same positive experience, so in this week’s poll question we ask: Do you think the continued use of paper in hospitals poses a safety risk to patients? Sign up for our weekend edition or comment below.