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How Technology Can Reduce the Number of Medical Errors

The number of medical negligence claims in the UK is rising, and so is the cost to the NHS. Medical negligence claims arise from all fields of medicine and surgery, and come from failures to diagnose, failures to treat, or errors made during surgery. It is patients, not doctors, who bear the brunt of a medically negligent act, but fortunately the increasing use of medical technologies to assist doctors and surgeons is helping to reduce the number of errors that occur.

The NHS sees all too many of the effects of medical malpractice, with lawsuits on the rise. In the 2013/2014 financial year alone, the NHS received an unparalleled number of medical negligence claims, with over 1000 claims per month. The NHS has now increased the fund it has to deal with medical negligence claims from £8.7 billion in 2010, to £15.7 billion in 2014.

Many people probably see medical negligence claims arising from botched surgeries, and it is true that patient injury from orthopaedic and general surgery are some of the largest areas of medical negligence claims in the UK, along with negligence in obstetrics. However, the evidence is conflicting. A 2011 study found that neurosurgeons and cardiovascular surgeons were the groups most likely to be sued, while another found that the specialties most represented in medical negligence claims were internal medicine (the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of adult diseases), and family medicine (what your family doctor or GP does). It does seem like the reasons for medical malpractice suits being brought are spread across the board, and may not always be surgical errors, but instead may be failures to diagnose a condition, or failures to treat that condition effectively.

Technological improvements are constantly providing new ways to improve and maintain the quality of patient care. This is extremely important, as poor quality care can lead to negative outcomes and ongoing injuries that cause pain and suffering. This isn’t just a few people, either: according to Patient Claim Line, a team of medical negligence experts, 61% of people who suffered medical negligence suffer from constant pain. Apple’s increasing number of health-related apps and technologies such as the Apple Watch are just one piece of the puzzle in trying to solve these problems, but they are an indicator of how in the modern day we are moving towards technological solutions to solving our these issues.

There are a number of new technologies in several different fields that can help to alleviate the influx of medical negligence and the accompanying claims to the NHS. First, clinical decision support systems are one type of technology that can assist doctors and other medical practitioners to make the best medical decisions for their patients. Their effectiveness is controversial, however, with several studies showing that the software did not help doctors as much as it was intended to. Other studies have shown huge benefits, so its usefulness is still up for debate.

The second type of up and coming similar technology has been likened to the black box on airplanes. Like a black box it will collect information, and will provide surgeons with a live analysis and advice on the progress of an operation. One of the researchers on this project, Teodor Grantcharov, notes that around 20 errors occur per surgery. Part of the reason, he thinks, is that once surgeons are finished with their training, there isn’t as much professional oversight over the surgeon’s work. The technology works by using a setup of cameras and microphones, and the patient data such as heart rate and blood pressure is fed from the relevant machines into the black box as well. This technology can hopefully bring down the patient injury rates from the orthopaedic and general surgery categories mentioned above.

All in all, there are numerous potential technological helpers that doctors and surgeons will soon have access to, and we can only hope that they decide to use them. Patients suffer from medication mistakes, misdiagnosis, or unnecessary treatments that all reduce their quality of life and introduce the potential for ongoing pain. As medical technology becomes more widely available, doctors should adopt these measures to prevent increased harm and suffering to the general public who desperately rely on their high-quality and mistake-free services.