Medication error rates to be reduced by technology

16 October 2008

Professor Johanna Westbrook heading research into the use of a revolutionary electronic medication management systems.
Professor Johanna Westbrook heading research into the use of a revolutionary electronic medication management systems.

The use of new information technology could significantly reduce the number of drug-related injuries in Australian hospitals, according to Professor Johanna Westbrook.

While virtually no data exists on local medication-related error rates, overseas figures indicate that one-third of all preventable medication-related harm is caused by drug administration errors.

Professor Westbrook is currently heading research into the use of revolutionary electronic medication management systems (e-MMS). Funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council, the world-first program is designed to examine whether these systems have a significant impact on patient care and the efficiency of medical professionals. 

"Electronic prescribing allows doctors to move from prescribing on paper to actually typing their order into a computer, then having the benefit of support which guides them in their decision-making processes," she explains. "For example, it can send them an alert to say, 'the patient is allergic to the drug you've ordered', or, 'this patient is already on a drug which interacts detrimentally with the drug you're about to prescribe'. The idea is that these systems will reduce prescribing errors." 

Professor Westbrook says the first half of the three-year study has been centred on determining the rate of prescribing and administration errors prior to the introduction of e-MMs, while the second phase is currently looking at whether the introduction of the technology leads to a decrease.

"I think it's very clear that information technology is going to dramatically change the way healthcare is provided, both in Australia and internationally," she says. "What has been missing has been the research that actually looks at the impact of these initiatives on patient care and also on the work of health professionals."

Another key component of the research is focused on the potential benefits of e-MMs to nursing staff, who are largely responsible for overseeing the medication administration process.

"Instead of using a paper medication chart, nurses can bring up the patient's electronic medication administration record, which can also assist them in reducing the chances of error," she says. "This support may stem from an alert that indicates that certain drugs are overdue, while the fact it's on computer means that information is actually legible. In the past, a lot of errors have occurred because nurses haven't been able to read drug orders that have been written."

Professor Robert Steele, Head of Discipline of the university's Health Informatics discipline, agrees that the innovative application of information and communication technologies to the wider realm of healthcare constitutes an enormous growth area.

"It's been recognised that the use of information and communications technology is one of the key ways that we're going to be able to address the already large and increasingly overwhelming future expenditure issues surrounding healthcare," he says. "These technologies can also facilitate greater patient safety as well as a better quality of life for patients. It will allow the streamlining of medical processes and may also offer many advantages in terms of prevention and ongoing health monitoring and management."

Professor Steele is also the coordinator of the university's Masters of Health Informatics degree, a cutting edge course designed to equip graduates with the skills to assume specialist health informatics roles.  

"These are people that may ultimately become information systems managers or CIOs in hospitals or other health-related organisations," he says. "It's a degree that will up-skill graduates and is an ideal qualification for further professional development in the field."

Significantly, the University of Sydney is the only educational facility in Australia with a Masters in Health Informatics program and a health informatics research centre.

Interviews: Owen Thomson, 0407 414 488

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