Hospitals Getting IT Prescription

Web tech helps streamline practices, cut errors.

Consider this: each year, more people in the United States die from medical errors in hospitals than from highway accidents, breast cancer or AIDS. This statistic, issued in 1999 by a private Washington-based research organization, the Institute of Medicine, startled health care providers throughout the country. But officials at CareGroup Healthcare System, a network of six hospitals in the Boston area, didnt just shake their heads in dismay. They decided last year to tackle the problem by spending just under $3 million to develop Web-based applications to improve patient care.

Their first target was an outdated and error-prone process used by physicians to order prescriptions. As at most U.S. hospitals, doctors wrote prescriptions by hand and faxed or delivered copies of them to pharmacists. CareGroup replaced that with a Web-based system that not only allows doctors to place prescription orders online but also connects to electronic patient medical records. That way, it can alert physicians to possible drug interactions or past allergies, said Dr. John Halamka, CIO at CareGroup. It also reduces errors caused by hard-to-read handwritten prescriptions.

"Doctors spend 20 years learning how to hand-write badly," Halamka said. "You can imagine that the difference between 0.5 mg and 5 mg can kill you."

So far, the online prescription ordering system, which cost $2.5 million to build, has cut out 90 percent of medication errors on one floor of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in Boston, CareGroups largest hospital, where it went live in June.

But CareGroup didnt stop there. Early this year, its IT department began working on streamlining the process used for tracking patient status in emergency rooms. At Beth Israel, they replaced a physical whiteboard with a 5-foot-wide electronic one displayed within the emergency room and accessible by doctors through the Web and over a 802.11b WLAN (wireless LAN). The so-called electronic dashboard, which cost $250,000 to develop, has not only received praise from the 50 doctors and nurses on the floor during each shift, but it has reduced the average patients time in the emergency room by a half-hour by giving doctors and staff up-to-the-minute information on things such as patient lab tests, Halamka said.