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Some hospitals slow to adopt life-saving IT tools

October 06, 2008

The recent drug overdose given to actor Dennis Quaid’s newborn twins has placed new attention on major hospital mistakes. Thousands of Americans die from preventable medical errors each year, with the number of deaths equivalent to a jumbo jet crash once a day. Now, new research shows some hospitals may be much riskier places to become the victim of a medical error because certain types of hospitals have been slower to adopt life-saving information technology (IT) tools.

“Health information technology is regarded as an essential tool to improve patient safety, but progress in adopting these tools remains slow,” says Assistant Professor Michael Furukawa of the School of Health Management and Policy at the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University.

He and his colleagues – Professor Ajay Vinze, Associate Professor T. S. Raghu and doctoral student Trent Spaulding – analyzed nationally representative data that shows patterns in which hospitals have adopted IT for medication safety. The study examined eight IT systems that reduce medication errors, including electronic medical records, computerized entry of physician orders, and bar-coding of medications administered. They found striking variation in the rate of adoption at hospitals.

“First of all, the percentage of hospitals adopting these important technologies is very low overall,” Furukawa says. “Even though President Bush has already issued an executive order to have the majority of Americans’ health records online within the next few years, only about a third of hospitals have electronic medical records. In 2006, hospitals, on average, had adopted less than three of the eight IT processes that we examined.”

For example, the study found that only about 14 percent of hospitals had a system that allowed doctors to order prescriptions via computer. That particular method helps to cut down on handwriting errors, as well as to ensure the right doses and check for interaction with other drugs the patient in the database is taking.

The study also examined which types of hospitals have been quicker to adopt these IT tools. They include larger hospitals, teaching hospitals, hospitals that belong to a multihospital system and hospitals with Joint Commission accreditation. Also, hospitals on the East Coast have higher health IT adoption rates than those in the Western and Mountain regions.

“This means we need to target policy to the hospitals that have been slow to adopt IT,” says Furukawa. “This is a matter of saving lives and ensuring better care.”

In order to combat the problem of slower adoption at some hospitals, the study authors recommend targeting intervention to specific facilities, such as those that are smaller or located in rural areas. They also recommend government-sponsored financial incentives for these providers to help them pay for the cost of the systems. Some states already have formal patient safety coalitions and centers dedicated to this issue. Similar initiatives could be established in other areas.

More results of this study were published in Health Affairs, a journal about health policy. To read the article, go to