The technology factor: Is it our friend or foe?

While The Joint Commission is asking health care facilities to use computerized physician order entry and bar coding technology as an adjunct to arm themselves in managing high-risk medications including anticoagulants, a recent study highlights the errors implicit in this kind of information technology (IT) support.

Peter Angood, MD, vice president and chief patient safety officer for The Joint Commission, points out that while technology is helpful, it is not a panacea. "The expectation is that technology will solve the problem," he says. "And it does not."

A first-of-its kind study tackles the problems inherent in IT systems often praised and recommended as first-line defense against medication errors. The study examining flaws in bar code medication administration (BCMA) systems was published in the July/August issue of the Journal of the American Medical Information Association.

Led by Ross Koppel, PhD, lecturer/adjunct professor in the department of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, researchers looked at five hospitals in the Midwest and on the East Coast and found 15 types of workarounds in which clinicians overrode the BCMA system to compensate for difficulties in the system.

One of the major findings, Dr. Koppel says, is "contrary to what is ordinarily discussed in the literature." In the study, he says, about 11% of medication bar codes were unreadable.