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Reducing or eliminating the likelihood of medical errors, and the associated liability, remains one of the most significant challenges facing health care organizations today. The health care industry and the government have drawn a bead on electronic patient records as a key way to reduce errors and health care costs. But that solution is still many years away. Today electronic patient records rarely are used due to high implementation costs and privacy concerns.

However, simpler, lower-cost technologies are making an impact on quality and accuracy of patient care. The strategic deployment of technology to better manage, archive and route patient information is crucial to the ability of health care organizations to improve the quality of patient care. Technologies are being deployed in new ways to not only reduce errors, but make patient care even easier for nurses, doctors and hospital staff.

New low-cost technology options enable hospitals to move forward with technology to lay the foundation for true digital workflow while providing immediate assistance with many paper-intensive processes. While few hospitals will convert to electronic patient records overnight, many are adding technologies that improve operations now and will help the organization cross the bridge to paperless operations in the future.

Multifunction technologycomputer printers that also function as scanners and copiershas inherent benefits that quickly become apparent in a health care setting, in many cases demonstrating a virtually instantaneous return on investment. Multifunction devices make it possible to begin the labor-intensive task of digitally capturing and storing paper-based patient information, even if the organization does not yet have in place the back-end systems needed to manage that information intelligently.

Nurses are a notoriously overworked segment of the health care industry. Every hour of patient care requires an additional hour of paperwork. These tedious requirements create a difficult work environment that leads to very high turnover rates and staffing shortages. With fewer staff and a heftier workload, the chance for errors increases, as does insurance exposure. More importantly, nurses have less time to do the most important part of their job, taking care of patients.

Multifunction technology can eliminate some of these issues by making paperwork faster and easier to complete at the point of care. By reducing the pieces of equipment at the nursing station and routing documents electronically, facilities have seen vast improvements in their operational efficiency, less turnover and reductions in costs. The amount of paper required from the patient care process is reduced.

Another issue facing health care organizations is accurate patient identification. In an effort to reduce the devastating statistics surrounding medical errors, recent legislation requires hospitals to use at least 2 patient identifiers whenever administering medications or other treatments. Many hospitals now include a barcode as one identifier on each patients wristband to identify them positively and match them to their medication and treatment plans.

Some hospitals now include 2 identifiers, both the barcode and a color photograph of the patient, on each wristband. A clear photo on the wristband is especially critical in situations where patients cannot respond to questions about their identity. These 2 identifiers work together to reduce the potential for errors and fulfill the legislated requirement.

Hospital admissions is another critical but lengthy process. Most hospitals use embossed card systems, often called “blue cards.” Using addressograph machines, information from the blue card is imprinted onto patient wristbands and pre-printed forms that are attached to the patients chart. However, this system is expensive and cannot imprint barcodes. To further complicate the admissions process there are many other devices that take up valuable space and time such as copiers, scanners, imprinters and fax machines.

Multifunction devices and intelligent document routing solutions can reduce admissions time and cut costs. One device can replace the copier, addressograph, scanner and fax machine and speed up the whole processgetting patients in front of caregivers more quickly. The entire admissions packet can be processed through electronic forms systems and distributed through a network in one simple task. Because the patient information is only entered into the system once, the error percentage drops dramatically, along with the liability risk.

Another vast area for liability involves prescriptions. In the majority of todays medical facilities, prescriptions are created through a handwritten note from the physician that is translated by a staff member and then submitted to a pharmacy via telephone or fax. Illegible handwriting, busy health care professionals and unsecured fax lines can be problematic and put patients and hospitals at significant risk.

Multifunction devices and intelligent document routing solutions can automate this procedure through electronic submission of the prescription from the doctor to the pharmacy. The information is transferred electronically over an internal, secure network. In addition, staff can easily track the status of a prescription through the multifunction device to confirm that it has been received. This can make a significant difference in the time it takes to fill prescriptions and get important medications to patients.

The bottom line is that the health care industry is currently facing many challenges. Conversion to electronic patient records systems is not going to be a cure-all, magic fix that will eliminate every problem. These solutions can help health care organizations make significant improvements, reduce their costs and, most importantly, improve overall patient safety and care.

is industry consultant for health care for Lexington, Ky.-based Lexmark, a maker of multifunctional output devices.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Edition, October 14, 2004. Copyright 2004 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.