Wednesday, August 04, 2010

A Few Additional Comments on the GE Radiation Debacle

Roy Poses beat me to posting about the General Electric CT over-irradiation debacle (GE: Don't Know Much About Radiation Safety, Don't Know Much About Physics).

I am going to add two points:

Point 1:

The National Research Council in its 2009 report on health IT warned that "current approaches to healthcare IT are insufficient", and one of the major caveats was that:

... greater emphasis should be placed on information technology that provides health care workers and patients with cognitive support, such as assistance in decision-making and problem-solving.

In fact the lack of cognitive support for clinicians was one of the report's major themes.

"Cognitive support" by definition means producing devices (whether physical or virtual) that are intended for busy clinical settings where situations often resemble a madhouse - not calm, solitary office environments (borrowing from Joan Ash's findings on CPOE flaws):

"Many information systems simply don't reflect the health care professional's hectic work environment with its all too frequent interruptions from phone calls, pages, colleagues and patients. Instead these are designed for people who work in calm and solitary environments. This design disconnect is the source of both types of silent errors …Some patient care information systems require data entry that is so elaborate that time spent recording patient data is significantly greater than it was with its paper predecessors," the authors wrote. "What is worse, on several occasions during our studies, overly structured data entry led to a loss of cognitive focus by the clinician."

It does not mean, as reported on July 31, 2010 in the New York Times, that designers and vendors of these medical devices should take the stance of blaming the user:

A GE spokesman, Arvind Gopalratnam, said the way scanners were programmed was “determined by the user and not the manufacturer.” GE, he added, has no record of Glendale seeking its help setting up the new procedure in 2009.

... GE says the hospitals should have known how to safely use the automatic feature. Besides, GE said, the feature had “limited utility” for a perfusion scan because the test targets one specific area of the brain, rather than body parts of varying thickness. In addition, experts say high-clarity images are not needed to track blood flow in the brain.

GE further faulted hospital technologists for failing to notice dosing levels on their treatment screens.

But representatives of both hospitals said GE trainers never fully explained the automatic feature.

Imagine the reaction if Boeing blamed pilots for collisions if those pilots, busy with other matters, were only alerted to an impending collision via a range reading on their cluttered instrument panel - rather than a LOUD AUDIBLE ALARM - such as WARNING, WARNING, COLLISION IMMINENT.

Point 2:

What's really missing here was attention to cognitive support for busy clinicians. This, of course, requires proper senior management - senior management with the appropriate expertise.

Proper senior management then controls talent management down the chain of an organization. If the leaders "don't know nothing 'bout trigonometry", they will be less likely to put mathematicians in appropriate leadership roles.

If management doesn't understand Medical Informatics, they will be less likely to put informaticists into leadership roles as well. One major focus of Medical Informatics is cognitive support of busy clinicians in their all too real-world environments.

Why might the latter point be relevant at GE?

In 1999 after working for a competitor of GE, Comdisco Healthcare Group, who among other business aspects reconditioned and resold capital equipment such as CT scanners, I wrote this in an essay on "what medical informatics is not":

... I've noted a number of large vendors and even national medical organizations whose so-called "Medical Informatics Directors" had neither clinical backgrounds nor training in medical informatics (nor in information science of any kind). MIS managers, social workers, and clinicians with no more experience than some tinkering with a home Macintosh can be found as "Directors of Medical Informatics" in the (unfortunately) unregulated healthcare IT industry.

Sometimes the term is used as a sales slogan. General Electric displayed a huge banner over their booth proclaiming themselves "the world leader in Radiology Informatics" at the 1999 Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) conference in Chicago. Unfortunately, nobody present, including sales, management, and engineering representatives, could explain to me what that term meant. They actually said they did not know. I had only identified myself as a physician at that point, not as a medical informatics professional, and expressed incredulity on nobody being able to explain the banner to me. Under pressure, one GE engineer offered the statement "I think it has something to do with computers attached to our x-ray machines."

It's now 2010. It seems GE still may not know what Medical Informatics is.

Handing busy clinical end users a revolver with a single bullet in the chamber, and asking them to play Russian Roulette under busy circumstances with a warning to "check the chamber carefully each time before you pull the trigger", is simply unacceptable for computerized medical device design.

-- SS


Anonymous said...

No one seems to have learned from the excellent report of Dr. Nancy Leveson about the radiation disaters of a decade or two ago.
The companies' executives should be held responsible for these injuries.

Anonymous said...

Shortliffe is conflicted as an HIT investor and should be dismissed. He should resign. He is a cog in the conspiracy to accessing the piggy bank that covers medical care. These devices neither add value nor improve outcomes and put patients at high risk for unexpected medical catastrophes, as witnessed in the picture.

InformaticsMD said...

I do not know about Dr. Shortliffe, but as in other medical fields, I believe it would be good if informaticists revealed potential COI's in their articles.

I have no investments, financial stakes nor do I receive money from any health IT vendor or related company. I believe such stakes could compromise my ability to think objectively and critically.

-- SS

Anonymous said...

The radiation overdoses at Huntsville Hospital in Alabama are criminal. All the patients overdosed were not informed - a clear coverup. Wonder if the FDA, often useless will, will cover it up like the Radiation Control of Alabama tried to do.