Healthcare has a mixed relationship with technology. Many industry influencers and spokespeople like to wax lyrical about the transformative nature of technology when applied to healthcare settings – with Aubrey de Grey, co-founder of the SENS Research Foundation, going so far as to say that the first human to live to over 1,000 has already been born, where science and technology will ultimately make such a long life possible.
Indeed, there’s much to be excited about. CRISPR, a mechanism for editing genes, will be used in the first trial of its kind to edit genes inside the human body.
Recent breakthroughs in regenerative medicine have led to the quicker growth of artificially grown human tissue and organs, while further advances in the fields of Artificial Intelligence and quantum computing promise to revolutionise our ability to pre-emptively identify and treat patients for diseases they don’t even have yet.
Admittedly, the future looks bright. But the real-world application of these technologies en masse is still a long way away. Meanwhile, in the present, technology, or rather the ineffective use of it, is causing more harm than good in some very select cases.
Earlier this year, a computer error was blamed for failing to invite an estimated 450,000 women aged 68-71 to routine, but lifesaving, breast screening appointments since 2009. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, speaking to the commons, suggested that the error could have caused as many as 270 women to lose their lives prematurely.
It’s worth remembering then that while technology can be applied to save significant amounts of time and resource by automating administrative tasks at scale, in doing so, it can inadvertently cause catastrophe on a similarly large scale if the correct checks and balances aren’t put in place to prevent such errors from occurring.
Cybersecurity also poses a very real concern. With a healthcare system that relies so heavily on IT for routine tasks, communications and management, any minor disruption can cause almost catastrophic damage. A valuable lesson here can be learned from the WannaCry ransomware attack of May 2017.
WannaCry wasn’t expressly concerned with medical institutions, instead simply exploiting systems that weren’t properly protected from outside security threats. Regardless, on Friday 12th of May 80 out of England’s 236 hospital trusts were affected.
On the ground, this meant that doctor’s, nurses and medical staff were forced to resort to Pencil and paper while having to use personal mobile phones to resume communication; appointments were cancelled, and patients were sent away as systems were scrambled and inoperable according to the Telegraph.
Fortunately, staff initiative meant that there wasn’t a single count of patient harm because of the attack, but it laid bare the vulnerability of institutions that are heavily reliant on technology for routine administration at scale.
Earlier this year, the Independent reported that the NHS now intends to spend £150million on new cybersecurity measures, an expensive lesson.
The expense is a very pertinent topic when discussing the NHS. Measures to reduce spending across the NHS have focussed healthcare leaders on the subject of technology and how it can be used to realise efficiencies and savings to reduce expenditure without affecting patient care.
This is a noble pursuit, but it isn’t without its challenges. The ‘computer error’ which may be responsible for as many as 270 breast cancer deaths is just one such example, but similar ‘errors’ arise daily with consequences that are no less serious.
Claims for compensation against the NHS are a very real problem insofar as that they’re expensive; but the compensation paid is rightfully due, as some of these cases can be traced back to gaps in patient care. Where someone presents with symptoms that require further investigation and referral, the process that takes them from the GP surgery to a specialist outpatient department needs to be managed very carefully to ensure that patients get all the letters and required communications necessary to make certain that those investigations take place.
In the majority of cases, the patient is informed that they have a treatable illness and the system produces as beneficial outcome; in rare cases, however, patients with the early symptoms of terminal or serious diseases ‘fall through the cracks’ and don’t get given the referral appointments they need to identify and treat these illnesses early enough.
The result? For some, it’s an early death. For others, it’s a faster progression of the disease and reduced quality of life that may have been preventable. In these cases, the isolated incidents rarely make the headlines, but it doesn’t make them any less serious.
Technology can save lives and produce beneficial outcomes at scale, but if mismanaged or poorly planned, technology can be very efficient at doing exactly the opposite.
The NHS and other medical institutions now have a greater management challenge. Not only do they need to uphold the usual high standards of care to prevent medical negligence, and the medical negligence claims that arise as a consequence.
Healthcare professionals must now pay careful attention to the management and application of technology in medical settings to prevent the same catastrophic legal claims arising from matters as simple as clerical and administrative error.
Poor medical judgement is one thing, but shortening life by forgetting to send a letter is frankly painful, but a very real possibility as technology and electronic systems are increasingly relied upon for day-to-day processing.
Your Legal Friend has over 30 years’ experience in the legal industry and specialises in several sectors including personal injury, professional negligence and group litigation. We are Lexcel accredited, and Law Society accredited in two areas as well as being part of several solicitors societies dedicated to maintaining the integrity of legal practice in the UK.