Interoperable medical devices could make hospitals safer

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Plug-and-play demonstration projects are illustrating how the interoperability of medical devices could make hospitals safer and more efficient, despite new possible opportunities for error.

Julian Goldman, director of the Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology's Medical Device Interoperability Program, based at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, has developed two demonstration projects that illustrate the idea of a "plug-and-play" operating room, according to MIT Review.

The first project is an integrated ventilator. To keep the lungs' movements from blurring the image, doctors must manually turn off the ventilator for a few seconds to take the x-ray. But, the physicians run the risk of inadvertently leaving the ventilator off for too long, Goldman said.

Goldman used a webcam to simulate an x-ray machine, which he connected to a ventilator and a computer. He synched the camera with the ventilator to capture images only when the ventilator was at the point of full inhalation or exhalation.

As a result of the demonstration, standards for ventilators are in the process of being revised so that future versions of the devices will include a pause function and will be subject to network control, moving toward interoperability, Goldman noted.

Goldman's second plug-and-play demonstration simulates a self-administering pain medication pump. Monitoring devices strive to eliminate the risk that patients will accidentally overdose. However, the devices set off many false alarms.

Goldman speculated that if a computer received data from two or more monitoring devices, it could much more easily distinguish false emergencies from real ones. In his second demonstration, simulated patient data are fed to an oximeter and a respiratory monitor. The program sounds an alarm only when both sensors suggest that the patient is undergoing a crisis, according to MIT Review.

Goldman admitted that obstacles to device interoperability remain and monitoring systems are expensive for hospitals to replace. Additionally, a vendor that produces medical equipment tends to make its devices compatible only with each other.

But many emergency rooms need such specialized equipment that no one vendor can produce all of it to solve the interoperability problem, Goldman added.

Daniel Nigrin, chief information officer and senior vice president for information services at Children's Hospital Boston, said that hospitals are slowly starting to move toward medical devices that share data with one another and with EMR systems.

"There are instances where you're starting to see some of the devices connected. Whether that's having monitoring systems or ventilator systems attached to electronic medical records, you're starting to see some systems like that implemented in a real-world environment," Nigrin concluded.