Errors happen. After all, we’re only human. Fortunately, electronic health records (EHRs) have helped eliminate some common medical mistakes. For example, a study published in the June Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association reported that more than 17 million medication mistakes are avoided in the United States each year because hospitals are using computerized systems for ordering prescription drugs, thereby reducing the risks from misreading sloppy handwriting on prescriptions and allowing dangerous drug combinations.
But what if the error is caused by a software glitch?
The UnitedHealth Group Inc. recently recalled software used in hospital emergency departments in more than 20 states because certain versions of the software had a bug that failed to print information about medications and add data to patients’ charts. Such notes typically contain directions about diet and use; failure to include them could lead to serious injury or death.
This is not the first recall of Picis software (the software manufacturer purchased by UnitedHealth Group in 2010), according to Bloomberg. A database maintained by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recorded six recalls since 2009. Unlike medical device manufacturers, makers of EHR software are not required to report safety issues to the FDA.
“It’s admirable that the vendor reported this,” said Ross Koppel, adjunct professor of sociology and medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, “but realize that this is one of the more obvious errors. Most are not as obvious and go unreported.” He explained that some companies require hospitals to sign non-disclosure agreements, and practitioners are often unaware of the technology’s role in errors.
It is difficult to understand how such an obvious error could have been overlooked prior to releasing the software. Although it seems particularly serious in the EHR environment, one can imagine that other types of software might be subject to similar omissions or bugs. It draws attention to the need for rigorous user testing – even when dealing with products from trusted vendors.