The impact of outdated communications technologies in healthcare

As a physician, I experience first-hand the impact that internal communication at a hospital—both good and bad—has on patient care.

If I am able to quickly access clinical systems, analyze patient information and collaborate with colleagues, I can diagnose and interact with the patient much more efficiently and effectively. Conversely, breakdowns and inefficiencies in the communications process can inhibit the delivery of quality patient care by bogging down workflows, creating delays and disrupting the care team’s collective thought process.

This becomes even more important as the industry continues its transition to electronic health records. Clinicians want the ability to use new technologies to improve how they interact with colleagues and care for patients, and although EHRs are intended to improve efficiency and enhance patient care, hospital IT departments must ensure that they also meet security and regulatory compliance requirements.

As organizations work through these challenges, many hospitals continue to rely on pagers and other outmoded technologies as a primary system of internal communication. These outdated methods invariably have an impact on clinical workflows and patient care—I and many others understand full well the frustrations of waiting for a page or email to be answered.

To determine the quantitative effects, the Ponemon Institute surveyed 577 healthcare professionals, including doctors, nurses, administrators and IT practitioners. Overwhelmingly—and not surprisingly—respondents agreed that the deficient communications tools currently in use decrease productivity and limit the time doctors have to spend with patients.

For example, according to the study, clinicians waste an average of about 46 minutes each day due to the use of outdated communication technologies (an estimate which I personally think is conservative). The primary reasons cited include the inefficiency of pagers, the lack of Wi-Fi availability, the inadequacy of email and the inability to use text messaging. This wasted time not only reduces the time clinicians spend with patients, but it also impacts a hospital’s bottom line—the Ponemon Institute estimates this wasted time costs the average U.S. hospital more than $900,000 per year, translating to an industry-wide loss of more than $5.1 billion annually.

Another interesting finding was that similar deficiencies in communications significantly lengthen patient discharge time. According to the study, average discharge time is 101 minutes. A majority of survey respondents believe that secure text messaging can cut discharge time by 50 minutes, which the Ponemon Institute estimates could generate more than $3.1 billion in revenue per year across the industry.

Reducing patient discharge time is a solid, very specific example of how modern communications can improve patient care, and survey respondents seem to understand the benefits of using smartphones, text messaging and other new technologies. Yet, for the most part, they remain unused because of the perceived security and compliance risks. In fact, more than half of Ponemon survey respondents said HIPAA compliance requirements can be a barrier to providing effective patient care, saying it reduces time available for patient care, makes access to electronic patient information difficult , restricts the use of electronic communications and restricts the use of personal mobile devices.

This and similar studies illustrate the tension between security requirements and ease-of-use when it comes to new technologies. Technology should eliminate, not create, barriers to delivering effective patient care, which is why clinical and IT staffs need to work together to implement solutions that promote and enable fast, efficient communication while keeping private health information safe.

I encourage readers to download the Ponemon Institute report, titled “The Economic & Productivity Impact of IT Security on Healthcare,”and look forward to hearing your thoughts on these findings.

Sean Kelly is an emergency physician and chief medical officer, Imprivata.

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