"Its a sure bet" that standing orders—that is, default treatment instructions for patients meeting certain criteria—increase preventive care, said Clement McDonald, the studys senior author.
McDonald, of the Regenstrief Institute in Indianapolis, said that besides vaccination, standing orders could help make sure that more patients receive cholesterol tests, mammograms and other widely recommended procedures.
But he hastened to add that any kind of computer prompt is much better than none at all in making sure that patients who enter a hospital for other reasons receive preventive treatment.
Based on a survey of a hospital that did not use computer systems to identify those eligible for the vaccine, McDonald said "only about 1 percent of patients get these vaccines. Its not in the minds of people to do these vaccines yet."
The study published in JAMA (the Journal of the American Medical Association) used a hospitals computerized order entry system to find patients eligible for vaccinations against flu or pneumonia. Over 14 months, 3,777 patients that entered the hospital were screened for eligibility.
For about half of the eligible patients, vaccine orders were produced automatically and given to nurses when patients were discharged. For the other patients, the computer sent reminders for vaccine orders to physicians during routine order entry.
Before administering the vaccinations, nurses always asked patients if they wanted a vaccination, had already received a vaccination or had potential allergies to the vaccine.
After correcting for patients who said they had already received vaccinations, 52 percent of patients in the standing order group received influenza vaccines, compared with 36 percent in the reminder group. Results for the pneumococcal vaccine were similar.
McDonald said the work showed how improved health care often relies on the initiative of a health care organization, as opposed to that of individual physicians. "If the system thinks it should be done, the system should get it done," he said.
He speculated that physicians sometimes did not follow through on reminders because they wanted to discharge a patient more quickly or because the patient had told them a vaccine was unwanted. But he said some reminders probably got lost amid other distractions or just because the physicians were given "an easy opportunity to say no."