Failed Connections: Why Connecting Humans Is as Important as Connecting Computers

Daniel Z. Sands, MD, MPH


November 17, 2008

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Communication challenges in healthcare are common and costly, contributing to inefficiency, reduced quality, and dissatisfaction among employees and patients.

A 2006 survey[1] found that two-thirds of hospital nurses report wasting more than 20 minutes per shift trying to reach other clinicians, taking them away from their patients. This wasted time amounts to $3.4 billion annually, or $1.7 million for a 500-bed hospital.[2] Can we afford this when hospitals are struggling financially and competing to attract and retain clinical staff amidst a worldwide nursing shortage?[3]

Physicians and others also are affected by ineffective communications, resulting in inefficient care, including delayed patient discharges and injuries. Although the number of patients injured directly as a result of communication failures is not known, The Joint Commission [on the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations] found that ineffective communication[4] was the most common contributor to "sentinel events,"[5] which denote safety issues. Overall annual costs exceed $20 billion.

Although other factors such as cultural issues contribute to communication challenges, many problems stem from limitations in communications technology. Most people choose instant messaging, email, videoconferencing, Web-based collaboration, or other methods to communicate based on the situation and user preference. In healthcare, however, we have stubbornly clung to only 2: telephones and pagers. These decades-old devices do not afford us the flexibility to communicate effectively in today's complex, collaborative, and mobile healthcare environment. We must introduce a full complement of communications solutions that interoperate seamlessly as part of our workflow. These solutions are referred to as "unified communications."

Healthcare has been focused on delivering the right data about the right patient to the right person at the right time. We must now focus on enabling clinicians to communicate with the right clinician about the right patient at the right time through systems and technologies that help us achieve this goal.

That's my opinion. I'm Dr. Daniel Sands, Cisco and Harvard Medical School.

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