EHR & Artificial Intelligence Can Reduce Medical Errors

Electronic health records save lives by collecting patient data in one place. Artificial intelligence takes it a step further by calling on the expertise of multiple doctors.

While I had heard that almost 400,000 Americans die each year because of medical mistakes, in a recent article Forbes contributor Dan Munro underscored that volume when he asked readers to imagine the largest commercial aircraft -- an Airbus A-380 -- crashing every day for a year: The number of passengers who would perish aboard those imaginary crashes compares to the number of patients really dying annually in our hospitals due to blunders.

People who want nothing to change usually dispute the number of deaths. For the sake of argument, let us assume the actual number could be represented, then, by one crash every four days. Even then, surely it is worthwhile trying to figure out how to prevent these errors.

Certainly, procedural failures or pure accident causes some errors but incomplete or incorrect information about the patient is at the heart of a large percentage of these mistakes.

As Munro points out, a major problem is that the current healthcare industry is incentivized by revenue and profits -- not safety and quality. Therefore, as newly re-elected Florida Governor (and former healthcare CEO) Rick Scott said at a recent meeting to discuss cutting costs in healthcare, the industry has been unwilling to voluntarily reduce profits. Since safety and quality using current methods would be expensive and slash profits, perhaps electronic health records (EHRs) and health information technology (HIT) could  accomplish the  goals of all stakeholders.

EHRs can maintain patients' complete medical histories, along with all known allergies and medications. The record should travel with patients, no matter where they go for treatment. Doctors do not have to rely on the patient's fallible memory at every encounter. The record speaks for patients, even if patients are incapacitated for any reason.

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We must recognize that doctors often face points of no return -- and patients get no second chances. Choosing the right medicine or treatment is frequently a game of probabilities. Choose the right medicine and the patient will live. Choose the wrong one and the patient will die. This is why even the most qualified doctors often seek second or third opinions before embarking on a risky treatment plan. Doctors have told me countless stories about their ability to save patients because a complete EHR was available. In these cases multiple doctors were able to view the same information at the same time, often while residing thousands of miles apart. They collaboratively agreed on the best option -- and saved the patient's life.

EHRs also facilitate artificial intelligence. A patient's medical history often is full of reams of data; manually winnowing through that information is a daunting task. Today, teams of top doctors help develop artificial intelligence systems that can quickly determine if a proposed medicine, food, or medical procedure will likely cause the patient greater harm than good. This will reduce a large number of medical mistakes.

There is no cause for concern. Decisions suggested by artificial intelligence systems developed by top-notch doctors likely are more accurate than decisions made solely by humans. Watch Vinod Khosla discuss this fascinating issue. All doctors are not created equal. As Khosla pointed out, studies show that if you give the same data on a patient to a random group of 10 doctors and ask them if surgery is recommended, half will choose surgery while the other half will choose not to perform surgery.

If artificial intelligence systems are built using the medical minds of the doctors that choose the right answers, these technological solutions sift through an incredible amount of data and provide more medically reliable recommendations. Of course, a human doctor still makes the ultimate decision. However, the doctor has the benefit of a large amount of data analysis and is much more likely to make a decision based on complete information, not incomplete data.

Perhaps EHRs plus AI will save many more lives and dramatically reduce medical errors without increasing costs too much.

The owners of electronic health records aren't necessarily the patients. How much control should they have? Get the new Who Owns Patient Data? issue of InformationWeek Healthcare today.