Unintended Consequences of Health Care Technology

Here’s an interesting article about why the strong push for electronic medical records may not be a wise decision. The article talks about the government’s proposal to spend $50 billion over five years to promote technology for health care– a major proponent of which is replacing paper medical records with digital ones. Although the concept sounds good at first, the article points out that there is very little research-based support for the benefits of electronic medical records.

This reminded me about a BayCHI talk that I went to over the summer where Chris Longhurst (of Stanford’s Children’s Hospital) discussed the “Law of Unintended Consequences” with regards to health care technology. In his talk, he described how hospitals that were “going paperless” in order to rid themselves of inefficient processes discovered some unexpected problems. One particular example was of a system which allowed doctors to prescribe medications in a computer system by selecting things from a list (rather than by writing them out by hand). Although this sounds like a great way to streamline processes, the task was in fact made too easy. Doctors would mistakenly select incorrect medications from the list and not notice their mistake, whereas if they had been writing things by hand, this would have been much less likely to happen. Unfortunately, mistakes can be very costly in the health care field– according to this study, mortality rates have in fact increased in hospitals that adopt certain health care technology.

Clearly, if we are going to invest in new healthcare technology, we need to be aware of the risks involved and do everything we can to foresee and plan for these “unintended consequences.” In such a high-stakes field, it’s not enough to just design experiences that streamline processes and “make things easier to use.” We also need to consider how we can call attention to tasks that demand high levels of focus without creating information overload or frustration. Health care technology is an incredibly important field with immense potential for good, but these sorts of considerations are absolutely necessary if we are to create technologies that help more than they hurt.