Some Low-Tech Healthcare Issues Need High-Tech Help

June 19th, 2013
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Healthcare improvements often depend on technology a great deal, whether it’s a new drug, diagnostic device, online system or even an app. Sometimes, however, solutions to nagging problems beg for less costly, low-tech solutions. And in a handful of cases, low- and high-tech innovations must work hand-in-hand for a problem to be successfully addressed.
Take hand-washing, for example. This simple procedure can help combat the 100,000 deaths and $30 billion in annual costs due to hospital-acquired infections, yet only 30 percent of hospital staff meets the standard for hand-washing recommended by the World Health Organizations and other health groups. Now that hospitals could lose Medicare funding if enough patients contract preventable infections, they’re looking to technological solutions to fix this age-old problem, including high tech devices like video monitoring and motion detectors in intensive care units.
At Popper and Company, we’ve watched with great interest the development of healthcare technologies. Below, I – with a background in nursing and applying innovations to clinical settings – and my colleague Stephanie Kreml, a physician with expertise in engineering and health systems, offer our diverse perspectives on combatting the hand-washing problem:

Compliance is an issue in healthcare, even for providers and staff. Now, we have economic incentives to fix some of the problems that lead to these preventable complications. This opens the door for more high-tech solutions as hospitals are clearly motivated to pay for them given the obvious ROI for preventing such conditions.
Sometimes, however, something as simple as a checklist can improve outcomes. Since human brains aren’t programmed to remember everything, a “to-do” list can help with simple processes like hand washing or following proper sterile technique. In a groundbreaking study, clinicians at Johns Hopkins Hospital were able to almost completely eliminate catheter-related infections using a simple 5-item checklist. Most importantly, nurses were allowed to stop physicians if anything was missed or skipped! Now, almost a decade after the study was published and after widespread adoption of the checklist approach, there has been a decrease in nationwide central venous catheter-related infection rates, but there is always room for improvement. With sensors and intelligent systems, new technologies – rather than nurses – can provide the nudge needed to drive adoption of better behaviors until they become habits and rituals. These technologies can in a short period of time drive cultural change that usually only occurs over decades!

Proper hand hygiene is one of the most important contributions to infection control, and we assume that everybody knows when to wash his or her hands. So, we’ve never felt a need to find out how compliant a health care worker is at practicing hand hygiene—until infections break out.
Infection control teams created to observe and record hand washing are unrealistic—they are too labor intensive and won’t capture how any one individual performs these activities. Asking patients to remind doctors and nurses to wash their hands prior to touching them and performing a procedure has been instituted in facilities, but isn’t as useful in an ICU or emergency setting.
Part of the answer may lie in new technologies such as those developed by our client, IntelligentM, which can objectively monitor and collect data. This may be the most reliable method to assess compliance. As Stephanie mentioned, however, this is just half the equation that results in more hand washing (and lower infections). New technologies will still need to aim toward effective behavior change.
At Popper and Company, we look at as many dimensions of current healthcare problems as possible in order to arrive at innovative solutions, whether they be high- or low-tech (or, as in this case, both). To learn more about how we can provide new perspectives for your healthcare products or services, please subscribe to our newsletter, follow us on Twitter, or send an email to Stephanie or me.

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About the Author:

I have 20 years experience in clinical research, including leading diagnostic and pharmaceutical clinical studies in disease areas ranging from cancer to infectious disease to cardiology, diabetes, and autoimmune disorders. Send me an email.