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Let's Move Away From Pre-Computer Age Health-Care Practices

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HEALTH CARE
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Canada's health ministers have once again met with the federal minister of health to seek more money. Meantime, nurses and doctors are campaigning for more cash for the system.

Cries of cutbacks and the serious consequences on patient care are ringing through hospital corridors throughout the provinces. Wait times are a key measure. Are they getting longer or not? Opposition political parties join the chorus of doomsayers. The common mantra is that there is simply not enough money.

Technology has been a staple in businesses, governments and other organizations for many years. Why are hospitals so far behind?

But wait! If this is true, why is our health-care system not focusing more on being efficient and freeing up time away from administrative drudgery and finding ways to reduce redundancies? You know, there is a reason most good organizations focus on boring administrative stuff.

Having spent more time than I would like in the health-care system this year, let me make a few observations on the services that I personally received and the care offered to a close family member. First of all, the care overall was excellent and at no time did I feel that our health was at risk because of wait times or other weaknesses in the system. The staff was almost all very compassionate and seemed to know what they were doing.

On the other hand, it is not hard to find efficiencies, even for a rank amateur like me. Efficiencies that would free up medical staff time so they can better focus on patients.

I have a radical idea. Let's move away from pre-computer age practices. Technology has been a staple in businesses, governments and other organizations for many years. Why are hospitals so far behind?

Not only would the better use of the new fangled Internet and office software and procedures save time, it could improve quality of care. What other sector still uses pre-computer administrative practices?

Think that I'm exaggerating? I will not name the institutions as my intent is not to embarrass -- and besides I am convinced that the situation is not unique to any one establishment. My recent visits included four hospitals. Here are some examples:

  • No transfer of patient records from one institution to the other. This requires patients to keep their own health records or rely on memory. A difficult thing to do when under stress. As a result, patients are asked the same questions over and over again, including names of medications and exact dose amounts. Who asks the questions over and over again? Doctors and nurses, of course. What a waste of time, never mind the risk of error. Whatever happened to electronic health records? In some cases there were computers were in the examining rooms, but they weren't even turned on.
  • Medical appointments made by snail mail. Sitting in one waiting room, time and again I heard staff calling patients by phone to tell them that their appointment time will be mailed to them. Really? What could possibly go wrong?
  • In one case, I was asked to go back to the referring hospital to pick up a compact disk (CD) with my test results and deliver it to the receiving hospital. I can't recall the last time I "burned" a CD for anything. At least it wasn't a floppy disk. What is that Internet thing I keep hearing about?
  • When picking up my CD, I was asked for my hospital card. You know, those plastic cards that most (but not all) institutions demand. Of course, I did not have it. The clerk told me I would have to go to admissions and get a card. Not being in the mood, I pushed back. She relented and said not to worry, all the information needed was on my provincial health card. The hospital card is not really necessary. Not necessary? How much plastic are we burning?
  • And finally, I was whining about the hospital card issue to a doctor that I know. He trumped me by saying that he wonders why he is still required to carry a pager (remember those?) when he and all his colleagues have smart phones. I have since asked this question to a few other doctors. None understood why they still had pagers. Not even low-grade drug dealers use pagers anymore.

There is nothing sexy about administrative software and updated administrative practices. But in most organizations, they are what is running the place in the most efficient way possible. The biggest gain is the freeing of time for professionals to do what they are paid to do instead of blowing time or wasting money on outdated or redundant practices.

And in case you are wondering, my family member and I are doing great. Thanks health-care system!

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