Paper-based hospital records linked to thousands of deaths

Hospital IT

Mistakes made on paper-based health records could be contributing to thousands of deaths in the UK each year, prompting calls for more hospitals to adopt digital record keeping methods.

Finding from a BMJ Quality & Safety journal report show death rates at two large hospitals fell by 15 per cent when nurses ditched paper records and were given handheld computers instead.

The report authors claim this 15 per cent drop equates to around 750 lives being saved each year at the two testing sites, which in turn could prevent thousands of people dying across the UK.

The devices feature pre-installed software, dubbed VitalPAC, that allows nurses to track the health status of patients and alert users if based on the information the nurse inputs a patient is showing signs of deterioration.

The staff used these devices to record the heart rates, blood pressure, oxygen levels and other vital signs of patients, resulting in fewer mistakes being made on account of poor handwriting and incorrect calculations, it is claimed.

The technology has been trialled at Queen Alexandra Hospital in Portsmouth since 2005, and at the University Hospital in Coventry since 2007.

The researchers said the introduction of the technology which is now being used at 40 hospitals in England led to 400 fewer deaths in one year in Portsmouth and a drop of more than 370 in Coventry.

Project leader Dr Paul Schmidt of Portsmouth Hospitals NHS Trust said the trial was undertaken because of concerns over the accuracy of paper-based records.

"Observing patients and making accurate records provides a safety net to guard against their deterioration.

"We believed traditional paper charts were not doing the job well enough so we designed an electronic system to support staff. This study shows its introduction was followed by a significant drop in deaths," he added.

Dr Duncan Watson, who worked on the project at University Hospital Coventry, said the technology also frees nurses up so they can spend more time with patients.

"This technology improves the performance of routine but important tasks and frees up clinical staff to do what only human beings can do care for patients."

The study's findings are likely to be welcomed by the UK government, who have already set the NHS a target of becoming paper-free by 2018.

Caroline Donnelly is the news and analysis editor of IT Pro and its sister site Cloud Pro, and covers general news, as well as the storage, security, public sector, cloud and Microsoft beats. Caroline has been a member of the IT Pro/Cloud Pro team since March 2012, and has previously worked as a reporter at several B2B publications, including UK channel magazine CRN, and as features writer for local weekly newspaper, The Slough and Windsor Observer. She studied Medical Biochemistry at the University of Leicester and completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Magazine Journalism at PMA Training in 2006.