There is no doubt that the future of health care is in information technology and the internet of things. Better movement of digital data has enhanced so many processes across industries and roles that its use safeguarding lives and helping patients recover is a clear next step. However, it’s unrealistic to expect the transformation to be 100 percent smooth. When it comes to implementing IT solutions, there are many pitfalls that can slow progress and weaken systems.
A certain weakness regarding digital initiatives has often reared its head in the government over the past few years, with the Department of Veterans Affairs being one of the affected departments. This pattern has reportedly resurfaced at an inconvenient time, with the VA’s attempts to implement IoT solutions declared, thus far, an expensive failure.
A Good Idea Gone Awry
The IoT is more of a general concept than a specific set of technology products. Any device that can send or receive data through an online connection can be part of the IoT, and the idea has become inescapable through the introduction of so-called smart appliances. In an era when everyday items can either collect or respond to information, it’s natural that VA facilities want to introduce this level of functionality to their health care solutions.
According to the Austin American-Statesman, the VA began an initiative in 2012 that involved attaching identifying tags to medical equipment in VA hospitals, which would allow personnel to track that equipment wherever it goes. Real-time visibility would improve efficiency, as it would become difficult to lose anything, and help ensure only properly sterilized equipment were used for procedures, thus reducing infection risk. But although the VA awarded its $543 million contract to Hewlett-Packard Enterprise Services more than five years ago, the program has stalled out. It was meant to go live in the summer of 2017, but the project now won’t officially start until June 2018.
So what happens when modern procurement and cataloging efforts don’t live up to the expectations of doctors, nurses and health care administrators?
One VA hospital in Washington, D.C. found out the hard way when its lack of a functional inventory left its staff suddenly short of such vital items as surgical clip appliers, devices that close patients’ blood vessels during operations, or even rubbing alcohol for cleaning and sterilization.
In an October 2016 incident in Wisconsin, a lack of equipment tracking led to a VA dentist using improperly sterilized equipment and putting almost 600 veterans at risk of hepatitis or HIV infection.
The Tribune-Review reported in 2016 that a VA facility in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, canceled its contract to use a digital system in place at 22 care providers. The exact reason for the termination wasn’t disclosed, but the system’s low point involved a supply chain breakdown in 2015 when staff members were forced to request supplies from other VA facilities.
Don’t Forget Cybersecurity
Rolling the IoT out to medical providers creates a wellspring of new data. But where there’s digital information, cybersecurity risk is sure to follow.
Healthcare Info Security recently profiled the team working to create a better security posture for VA technology and other government systems. With the National Institute of Standards and Technology on board, along with the Food and Drug Administration and the Association for the Advancement of Medical Implementation, the hope is to create a system that will set industry standards and expand beyond the walls of the VA. The group of agencies and private-sector companies also aims to improve the procurement process and ensure the right tools end up where they’re needed.
Getting new medical device tracking systems up and running is a priority, and the promised end result is clearly positive, but the road so far has been rocky. The challenges associated with the new systems don’t disqualify them from use, but they do demand a renewed focus from leadership.