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40 Years Later – Are We Any Safer from the Hazards of Biomedical Technology?

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In 1971, Ralph Nader wrote an article for Ladies Home Journal on the hazard of microshock occurring in U.S. hospitals. Nader’s article spurred the birth of biomedical technology departments in hospitals throughout the U.S. whose main goal was to test the growing array of biomedical technology equipment for the possibility of microshock. It’s 40 years later, do hospitals manage technological devices (which continue to proliferate) any safer?

According to Robert Larkin reporting for HealthCare Technology, the issue is murky—“hospitals lack consistent, coordinated management of the immensely complex, engineered environment of patient care.”

Modern hospitals use a huge array of complex devices and equipment which are expensive and whose projected continuing improved efficiency is promised by manufacturers. The complex nature of the equipment’s technology forces doctors, nurses and hospital staff to keep up-to-date with their techno-knowledge bases, so that they use the equipment safely and patients are safe.

In her article for the March 2011 newsletter of the International Electrotechnical Commission, Philippa Martin-King notes, “Technology plays an increasingly important role in health care and diagnosis. The array of medical equipment using electricity stretches from scanners and X-ray equipment to special lamps, lasers, warmers, operating tables, ventilating equipment, pumps and controllers.” Martin-King says that “as systems become increasingly complex and physicians demand greater precision in diagnostics, so the static and electromagnetic fields used, for example, in imaging equipment are increasing in strength.” The “question of patient safety, and the safety of the workers who operate the systems becomes even more pertinent.”

Hospital technology managers are continually challenged to make things safer for staff and patients. Health care technology management plays an extreme role in making an effort to make hospitals safer, whether it is assuring that monitoring systems all work or whether devices in patients speak the same language as the monitoring systems, or that the various hardware and software used in the hospitals various networks are compatible. Managing hospital technology more safely is more than about preventing microshock these days, it’s about seeing changes and advances in medical devices and devising methods to manage those systems before they become problematic to patients, staff, hospitals and communities.

As medical technology device manufacturers continue to produce safer and more effective medical devices, hospital technology managers will continue to be challenged to protect the integrity, reliability and safety of devices and systems they purchase and make available to doctors, nurses, hospital staff and patients.