Mobile technology: a new infection risk?
Mobile technology has made hospital doctors more efficient and improved patient care. However, an iPad, carried from ward to ward, can also be a means of spreading infection and creating an additional financial burden on the NHS. Mike Casey, former NHS CIO, argues that the introduction of mobile technology should go hand-in-hand with a strategic approach to infection control.
Before the advent of modern medicine, a stay in hospital was a risky business. In a crowded, dirty ward, an infection could spread like wildfire. The introduction of good hygiene practices, followed by the development of penicillin, resulted in a dramatic fall in infection rates.
A few years ago, however, the rise in antibiotic-resistant diseases such as MRSA and Clostridium difficile put hospitals on the back foot. Although robust efforts to tackle the spread of these diseases have seen rates tumble, 300,000 NHS patients in England develop a health care associated infection (HCAI) every year.
Tackling infections on-the-move
For the NHS it is an expensive business. In 2014, the NHS Litigation Authority (NHSLA) paid out £1.1bn in compensation, and that’s expected to rise to £1.4bn this year. Any hospital trust with high levels of HCAIs can expect to see its insurance premiums go up.
Not only that, but the cost of treating the infection, and patients’ prolonged stay in a hospital bed, adds to the trust’s bill. It is absolutely vital, therefore, both for the good of patients and for NHS finances, that trust boards find new ways of combating the spread of infection.
This means making sure that all possible sources of infection are identified and tackled. Although trusts have been rigorous in implementing best practice guidance on HCAIs, such as that issued by Public Health England, there is one area that is easily overlooked – mobile technology.
Forward-thinking trusts are already benefiting from the productivity and clinical safety improvements that mobile devices can bring. The traditional process of using desktop computers to access and record information is cumbersome and inefficient, hindering clinicians’ ability to do their job. Doctors who share a desktop computer spend a part of every day queuing up to use it, and then more time logging on and logging off. It’s a process that can take several minutes each time, adding up to hours every week.
Gordon Caldwell, a consultant physician at Worthing Hospital, has made a powerful case for the importance of clinicians having fast, easy access to clinical information. “Tardy access to core clinical information systems may be close to paralysing clinical care processes in many NHS hospitals,” he warns. Caldwell refers to the hours spent queuing for desktops and logging on and off as “non productive, wasted time.”
Even computers on wheels do little to improve the situation. The clinician may have to drag the cart over to the patient bed, and will still have to spend time logging onto the system or systems they want to access.
Having spent many years as a CIO in a hospital trust, I’ve seen how mobile technology can transform working practices. The use of iPads at a patient’s bedside enables doctors to access and record information without having to waste time finding a desktop computer. It could be as simple as accessing a medical dictionary to check a particular detail, looking up the patient’s haematology or microbiology results, or showing the patient their X-ray or MRI images.
Let's take the scenario of a doctor ordering a blood test for a patient, for example. Traditionally, they’d have to write the patient’s name down on a piece of paper, and then make the request later at the desktop computer. This not only slows down the process of ordering the test, it creates a risk of mistyping important details, such as the patient’s name, with potentially devastating consequences. Making the request through a wifi-enabled iPad means that the doctor can check the patient’s details at the bedside, and ensure that the test happens quickly.
Or perhaps the doctor wants to prescribe a different drug for the patient. Using e-prescription software – which has been found to slash medical errors – in conjunction with an iPad enables the doctor to access the list of drugs a patient is currently on, check which ones might be either suitable or contra-indicated for the patient’s condition, and write a new prescription. This will then go to the pharmacy without delay.
No longer is the doctor wasting hours queuing for the computer, or logging in and out. Everyone wins: doctors’ productivity improves, patients benefit from speedier treatment and a reduction in errors, and the trust saves money. Mobile technology can, however, present an increase in infection risk.
As doctors move from ward to ward with their iPads, they may be passing an infection around the hospital by taking bacteria with them. One US-based study that took swab samples from the electronic devices (both tablets and phones) of 106 hospital workers found that every device housed bacteria, either on the device itself or its cover.
The case for mobile cases
How can we fight back against HCAIs? NHS infection control staff, using Apple iPads, have been searching for adequate protection of the devices in the form of cases that are capable of being cleaned with standard infection control sprays and wipes.
Cleaning the iPad directly with harsh infection control sprays invalidates the Apple warranty. I had a mission to help solve this problem, and worked directly with NHS staff to design a new medical grade ruggedised case called the FlipPad.
In December 2014, nine hospitals were closed due to Norovirus outbreaks. This kind of situation has a tremendous impact on a hospital’s ability to treat patients. Doctors and nurses, who are normally immune, are struck down with it. Every winter, the NHS fights to stay on top of this nasty bug. They develop strategies to combat it and are honing down on the natural transmission pathway for the virus. It can survive on hard surfaces for days and, in some cases, weeks.
Powerful infection control sprays and wipes are the only way to kill this bug. Once an outbreak is in a hospital, it becomes a battle to restore services. Forward-thinking hospitals are constantly searching for tactics to win the battle before it has a chance to begin. They want mobility for their clinicians, and a clever policy to deal with infection control on any mobile device.
The government requires the NHS to find £22bn of efficiency savings over the next five years. Mobile technology can play a central role in making that happen, while improving patient care at the same time. Any implementation of mobile technology will, however, require a board-level decision to introduce a standardised method for ensuring that mobile devices are germ-free. This dual strategy – adopting mobile technology in tandem with a thought-out infection control policy – will be crucial in delivering a more productive and patient-focused NHS.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.
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