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Matters Get Out of Hand...

Obviously, my experience didn't result in an untimely demise. In fact, most people who rely on medication for daily existence are pretty conscientious about getting refills on time. The problem is that, due largely to profit pressures in good times and cost-cutting in bad times, many people in positions of authority are converting much more critical applications without fully understanding the consequences.

I'm speaking in this case of hospitals. For a myriad of reasons—political, social, ethical, and otherwise—that I don't want to address in this forum, hospitals in the United States are relying on fewer trained individuals to provide care. As the rate of mistakes began to grow, due in large part to ill-equipped and overworked employees, solutions to provide quality checks were sought. The first instinct was computers.

Just as the financial and manufacturing sectors had to undergo the pains of conversion from paper to digital, many healthcare providers have suffered a similar fate. Problems with a doctor's penmanship became problems of data-entry errors. All this will settle down with the new generation of workers, right? Well, yes, but this is not the real problem. We've all heard the stories of someone having the wrong leg amputated, receiving the wrong medication, or getting an operation intended for an entirely different patient. These problems are serious, but technologies like bar coding, which at least consolidate data entry into small areas of the hospital more easily monitored, are on the rise.

The real problem is that the old way of doing things is quickly being bred out of employees. What now happens when the computer is down? In most cases, a low-key panic ensues. In some "modern" hospitals, paper records are no longer kept. Worse yet, hospital networks are exploring the potential of linking multiple hospitals together with a single data store.

In the information technology field, most of us are familiar with the concepts of disaster recovery and redundant data. In a field such as medicine, however, such concepts are all but completely foreign. In the case of an accidental blackout, many hospitals would be unable to provide reliable care because no process has been developed to function without the machine.

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