By Grant Webb
Many people don’t automatically think of the human element when they think of technology, but people and technology can’t help but influence each other. This mutual influence, which forms the basis of the field of social informatics, can be seen in the way that we use technology and the way that technology shapes our daily lives. Social informatics involves the study of information and communication tools in cultural or institutional contexts. Specifically, it examines the social aspects of computerization and its role in social and organizational change as well as how social practices influence information technology.
One of the most important contexts for social informatics is healthcare. Historically, healthcare has been a paper-intensive industry as practitioners kept printed copies of patient records and created written orders for tests and medications. Perhaps due to habit or possibly due to mistrust or unfamiliarity with computers, many healthcare professionals continued to rely on paper-based systems long after computerization gained wide acceptance and usage within the field.
One significant problem with paper-based systems is the lack of consistency in how records are filled out and maintained and how long they are stored. Individual doctors, nurses and other providers often have their own way in which they record notes and update patient records, even those who hold the same job title within the same institution. Thus, records differ from doctor to doctor, nurse to nurse and facility to facility, which introduces inconsistency and fosters miscommunication. These differences can also lead to a variety of errors that can negatively affect patients.
In addition to the differences in the ways that individuals keep records, manual record-keeping typically introduces a significant amount of human error, which also increases medical errors. Medical errors can range from relatively minor impacts, such as ordering unneeded diagnostic tests, to major impacts that can put a patient’s life at risk. At the point in which a provider’s personal social informatics habits, as related to patient record-keeping, conflict with those of other providers, paper-based systems then become detrimental to patients’ wellbeing. Discrepancies inherent in paper systems can also inhibit information sharing, collaboration and the expansion of collective knowledge.
As a result of various medical errors over the years, the Federal government has mandated that healthcare providers implement electronic health records by January of 2014. This mandate, part of the Affordable Care Act, represents a drastic change for the healthcare field in an effort to reduce medical errors and streamline healthcare delivery and has increased the breadth of health informatics job offerings as a result. The electronic health record requirement has prompted many healthcare providers to abandon social informatics based on manual record keeping. In turn, this increasing implementation of electronic health records has led to the rapid expansion of health informatics.
Health informatics combines information technology, health science information and patient data to enhance and support clinical care, health services, administration, research and education while helping to contain costs and increase efficiency. Health informatics relies heavily on healthcare information technologies, such as electronic health records, computerized physician order entry and decision support systems but the implementation of these technologies is only as good as the people who use them. Management, clinicians and health information technology staff often assume that healthcare information technologies will deliver the results promised by vendors. As a result, they may unintentionally overlook the impact of interactions between new technologies and the existing sociotechnical environment. In the same manner, those who take for granted that technology will improve things may underestimate the contributions of clinical judgment and interaction with patients.
Healthcare providers are often quick to blame undesirable consequences and implementation failures on new technology. In reality, although technical issues are sometimes at the root of the problem, negative outcomes of healthcare information technology more often stem from the providers themselves due to differences between the new technology and the existing social and technical systems.
Health informatics can help pinpoint changes needed to existing social informatics such as workflows, culture and technology, to minimize negative outcomes and maximize the benefits of healthcare information technology. These benefits include improved patient safety, increased positive patient outcomes and greater levels of efficiency.
Grant Webb is an SEO Specialist at Bisk Education