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Getting Smart

April 1, 2008
by Stacey Kramer
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Looking to avoid allergic reactions and increase patient safety, UPMC creates some very smart rooms

David Sharbaugh

David Sharbaugh

It all began with a latex glove. In the spring of 2006, when a patient with a known latex allergy at a University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) facility was touched by an IV nurse, at first, everything seemed normal. What followed, though, was anything but. After the patient made contact with the glove, she suffered a severe reaction. Her arm reddened and became puffy and swollen. Understandably angry, she threw a bowl of soup at someone. While unfortunate, the patient's allergic reaction was luckily not fatal. But instead of just chalking the event up to human error, UPMC decided to use it as the impetus for implementing better patient safety processes, and developed a homegrown “smart” room.

“When we speak about these kinds of problems, healthcare has said that the solution is to yell at the nurse and say, ‘You needed to be careful,’ ‘You did not follow the policy,’ or ‘You need to go to orientation,” says David Sharbaugh, senior director of the Center for Quality Improvement and Innovation at UPMC, and the leader of the smart room project. “But the fact is we as an organization made it easy for her to fail.”

To Sharbaugh, the idea that in order to avert the episode, the nurse needed to fetch information about the patient's possible allergies meant UPMC's work flow — and perhaps even its patient safety stop guards — was broken. So Sharbaugh set out to fix it with better bedside patient care. To do so, he didn't look at another hospital; he looked to the Toyota production system. “They have embedded in their system this idea that you don't separate information from the product it describes. In our case the issue is, don't expect me to go in and take care of patients when the information I need is down the hall.”

Part of the problem, Sharbaugh believed, was actually part of the solution. “We had a number of events on this unit. When I look at each one of them, I say, ‘This was a serious event. It could have been prevented if they had better information.’”

The message, he says, “is really that electronic health records and medical information is, in a large part, cooped up in computers located at different strategic locations throughout the unit. All we are trying to do is to make that information accessible without adding extra work for the caregivers and the patient.” Sharbaugh believes there is a flaw in EMR design. “We aren't always putting the information where it's needed, when it's needed, within the context of the situation. That's the big lever we're trying to pull on with smart room technology.”

Brian Adams
If a patient has been on 30 medications at different points, Sharbaugh says he wants only the two currently in use to come up, so that caregivers don't have to sort and sift through data. UPMC's smart rooms are designed to provide the information, where, when, and at the time it's needed. The idea is that upon walking into the room, the clinician immediately knows who the patient is, and what kind of allergies the patient has. “If I could, we'd invent a system that would stick the patient's latex allergy on their arm,” he adds.
Christine Henderson

Christine Henderson

A game of tag

The allergic event happened in April 2006 and, for a year, UPMC looked for a partner to develop the smart room. When one couldn't be found, UPMC's leaders decided to do it on their own. And though the event happened at a different UPMC hospital with a different EMR, the healthcare system decided to create a smart room and test it at its Shadyside campus. After six months of working on the project, the UPMC smart room went live in October at the 486—bed hospital. The organization piloted the project in six rooms and had plans to expand it to the rest of the 24-bed unit by the end of March.

Dan Drawbaugh

Dan Drawbaugh

UPMC's smart room gets its clinical patient data from a Cerner (Kansas City, Mo.) EMR. The room works with Sonitor (Norway) ultrasonic tags, worn by UPMC clinicians. About half the size of a pager, the tags are picked up by sensors in the room. Each room is outfitted with a dedicated computer that operates two monitors, one for the provider, and one for the patient (at first this was installed behind the patient, but was later moved to be adjacent as patients requested a more comfortable view). Using the tags, the sensors identify the types of clinicians in the room and display the patient's name and allergies.

In addition, when tagged people enter the room, their names and roles are displayed on the screens for the patient. Currently, UPMC has five roles: physician, nurse, nurse's assistant, phlebotomist, and host (who brings the patient into the room and is charged with transport and dietary work). In addition to tracking tagged providers, an infrared sensor mounted above the room's doorway picks up non-tagged visitors entering the room, signaling the computer to turn on a spotlight pointed toward a wall-mounted hand sanitizer.

“The first display when the provider walks into the room, we call HIPAA mode because we mask any information that might be sensitive,” says Brian Adams, design engineer at UPMC, and co-developer of the smart room application.


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