Digital Era Brings New Perspectives on Patient Safety

Health care is going digital. And while most attention is focused on the potential advantages of artificial intelligence, electronic health records (EHRs), telehealth, and other developments, digital innovation challenges the current notion of patient safety.

Patient Safety Symposium: Innovation and Safety in the Digital Era — From EHRs to Cybersecurity


1:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Room 31C

“We hear every day about the benefits of technology in medicine, but we don’t hear as much about the impact on patient safety,” said Steven D. Harrington, MD, MBA, of Henry Ford Macomb Hospital in Clinton Charter Township, MI. “Part of the reason is that it’s easier to focus on improvements brought by innovation, rather than safety concerns.”

Dr. Harrington will moderate today’s Patient Safety Symposium along with Garrett L. Walsh, MD, of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Artificial intelligence is one of the most-hyped frontiers of medicine, Dr. Harrington said. Just as AI has produced cars that can drive themselves and phones that can recognize individual faces, AI has the potential to transform medical practice.

AI is nothing more than real-time predictive analytics, analyzing the available data and predicting future events based on past experience. But as experience with self-driving cars and facial recognition to unlock cell phones has shown, AI is not perfect. Predictive analytics cannot prevent self-driving vehicles from running into pedestrians, at least not so far. And facial recognition routines can be fooled.

“We need to consider the patient safety aspects of AI just as thoroughly as we consider the advantages to patient outcomes,” Dr. Harrington said. “There is always the possibility for unintended consequences.”

EHRs provide a prime example of unintended consequences. Although EHRs have provided important benefits in areas such as medication safety, they also have contributed to frustration, overwork, and provider burnout.

“Certainly in terms of physician angst, EHRs have not provided us with any real benefit. We should pay greater attention to how patient safety can be affected by the impact on providers,” Dr. Harrington said.

Cybersecurity and telehealth are other areas that need greater scrutiny. Both EHRs and electronic medical devices have been hacked, and patient safety is not often included in discussions about telehealth programs, which are becoming more widespread and use high-speed, high-capacity digital communication channels to connect patients and providers.

“We can already use remote diagnostics, remote reporting of lab work, remote medication dispensing, and remote patient monitoring,” Dr. Harrington said. “If you have the bandwidth, it doesn’t matter whether you are across the room or across the country. There is real potential to perform remote surgery using robotics, but only if we think about patient safety as part of the process.”