Healthcare Communication Counts: How Paper and Pens are Taking a Backseat to Technology

The stereotype of the illegible doctor’s handwriting is no joke- it can cause a pharmacist to dispense the wrong dose of a certain drug – or the wrong drug altogether – potentially killing a patient. Yet for years, that’s how prescriptions were handled.  A quick scrawl on a notepad and, fingers crossed, the patient would get the drug they needed.

It’s why those days are quickly becoming a thing of the past. This old cliché, and many others, are being left behind for the future of modern hospitals. With the staggering amount of money involved, poor communications systems can cost a lot. In this case, a lot means $12 billion in losses every year in the U.S. hospital system alone.  That’s a big number, but it’s not the most important issue for the community at large.

Hospitals and the healthcare industry at large are all about saving lives, so when a staggering 70% of accidental deaths and injuries in hospitals are caused by communication issues, it’s a serious problem.

So, what’s the cause of these communication issues, and are there solutions?

Even though it’s no longer the 90s, pagers are still favored in hospitals due to their simplicity, security, size and ability to get a signal where cell phones can’t. That’s an important factor if you could find yourself in a cement-walled hospital basement. (It also doesn’t hurt that nurses can’t play Pokémon on them.)

Smartphones are great and they’re the preferred choice of communication by 80 percent of Americans and nearly a third of the world’s population, but they haven't been the best choice for hospitals. Texting patient info on a cell network isn’t secure and it’s a violation of a patient’s rights. A single violation can mean a fine of up to $50k per text.

Telecommunications aside, there is still the matter of tackling the huge amount of paperwork involved in hospital care. When it comes to patient records, referrals, and Rx’s, it’s out with the folio and in with the cloud. Electronic health records, or EHR, are electronic, computerized records that are taking the place of stacks of papers, overflowing file cabinets, fossilized fax machines, and the aforementioned poorly-scrawled prescription pads. Their adoption in healthcare has grown considerably since 2009 when the industry was incentivized to do so.

The e-volution of hospital communication also means that doctors everywhere can communicate with one another in amazing ways. Remote surgery would allow patients to get a liver transplant from a doctor located across the country via robotics and video conferencing. If the zombie apocalypse ever does hit, doctors from around the world could put their heads together to tackle triage remotely.

That's exciting but it doesn't diminish the lack of communication technology that exists in the industry. It even stretches beyond the confines of the hospital and into the ambulances that work to keep patients alive until they can get the care they need. While static-filled walkie-talkies have been used for years, there are now better options. Smartphone software called Twiage has made the job easier. EMTs can now see a patient’s info and vital signs, communicate that info to the hospital they’re going to, and let both parties know exactly when they’ll get there all from a single handheld device. In other words, if you’re an EMT, there’s now an app for that.

What does the future of hospital communication hold? Data warehouses, device and data integration, and computer-guided resource management and clinical logistics are just some of the ways hospitals are hoping to deal with some of the shocking losses that occur each year due to miscommunication. The $12 billion that the healthcare system loses each year would be enough to rank as a mid Fortune 500 company rivaling the likes of J.C. Penney, Parker-Hannifin, and Texas Instruments. Learning to communicate in the 21st century could help the American healthcare system recoup a large portion, if not all, of those losses. That’s a pretty big incentive for everyone involved.