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New technology could decrease medical errors


April 09, 2009

Ongoing ASU research with Radio Identification Tags, or RID, may lead to minimal medical errors and better patient care and security.

Vimla Patel, the principal investigator for the RID research project, is also the vice chair and professor of the Department of Biomedical Informatics in the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering and the director of the Center for Decision Making and Cognition, which is where some of the research is being conducted.

“The overall goal is really to look at patient safety in critical care,” Patel said.

She said that because trauma and critical-care environments are complex and many things happen at once, there are more possibilities for errors.

“We really need to capture data that reflects this complexity,” Patel said.

Data on the movement of doctors and medical staff, as well as what is being said at that moment, is recorded through the RID tags, she said.

The tags are placed in the pockets of the medical staff who are in the trauma and critical-care environments, Patel said. The tags can
“identify what pushes people to those boundaries of errors,” she said.

These medical errors can be because of fatigue, multitasking and incomplete information from patients, Patel said.

She said other problems could occur in the handoff of information from one medical professional to the next. In her research, she is trying to find out what really happens in the handoff.

The research started a year and four months ago as a partnership with ASU and Banner Health Care, and with the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and Washington University in St. Louis.

The James S. McDonnell Foundation gave ASU a grant for five years to study complex systems, she said.

“They want out-of-the-box thinking, … innovative ideas,” Patel said.

The research shows that interactions among patients and doctors and hospitals themselves are a “complex domain,” Patel said.

“Things do not work in a linear process,” she said.

She also found that when doctors and medical personnel are experts at what they do, they can correct errors quickly.

With the RID technology, Patel said researchers can spend less time collecting data, because the tag automatically collects the data, and it is dumped off every time a doctor or medical professional passes a “bay station,” a place that collects tag information.

“We spend less time collecting data and more time thinking about it,” she said.

Patel said sometimes the data can conflict, especially when comparing the data from the interaction between two people.

“You’ve got to make sure that if you’re tagging, … [the data] match,” she said.

Hospital staff and the research staff work together on the research project, because they both have the goal of improving patient safety and reducing medical errors, Patel said.

“They provide contact to a real sense of reality for us,” she said.

Usually, research is only done in a laboratory, but in the RID project, both laboratory and actual hospital environments are used.

Patel said her research project is the only one she knows of that has many different types of people working together in a real world setting with RID tags.

Mithra Vankipuram, a first-year doctoral student who works with computer and human interaction, got involved with the research project when she was finishing her master’s degree in computer science.

“I think it’s a very interesting project in terms of the way we’re using technology,” Vankipuram said.

She said she is involved in the data-analysis aspect of the project.

“I think [the research is] significant, especially [because] 44,000 to 98,000 people are dying every year from medical errors,” Vankipuram said.

Reach the reporter at reweaver@asu.edu.