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3 ways technology could affect your health care

Feeling anxious about a medical condition is natural; so much rests in the hands of health care providers. Doctors and nurses are only human, which means medical mistakes are inevitable. Fortunately, experts have developed technology specifically to address many of the common problem areas in an attempt to eliminate errors.

These technological advances may make or break a patient's health. 

New technology does not always work as planned

Some medical technology has improved care and accountability, but sometimes it causes new problems.

1. Health care computer systems

Having all a patient's medical records digitized is a great boon for providers, as they can look in one place and see medications, symptoms, previous health conditions, family history and more. Providers are more likely to make key connections and to avoid many mistakes.

However, these electronic systems are vulnerable to hackers, who may access private information for nefarious purposes or make changes to the information and interrupt critical operations. Cybersecurity is the key to keeping this tool from becoming a threat.

2. Device alarms

Many medical devices include alarms that alert providers to issues. For example, patients who require a ventilator often cannot breathe on their own at all. Whether due to disease, medication or a recent medical procedure, the inability to inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide can quickly become deadly. With so much relying on a machine, an alarm system becomes a necessity to prevent a disconnection or leak from causing a fatality.  

While alarms are a good thing, too many alarms can be bad. If there are dozens of beeps and flashing lights at the nurses' station from a variety of different types of devices, they may lead to alarm fatigue. This sensory overload can cause health care workers to miss alerts to life-threatening issues, such as a failing ventilator. Staff needs training in identifying the most serious alarms, and facility administrators should consider whether nonemergency alert systems are necessary.

3. Surgical sponge counters

Surgeons rely surgical sponges during operations, but when it is time to remove the material, identifying all of it can be extremely difficult. Once soaked in blood, a sponge may blend in with the body cavity. If a single piece remains after surgery, it can drift through the body and become tangled and enmeshed in organs, causing serious and potentially fatal internal injuries or infections. Hospitals generally have some system in place for counting sponges, such as having a designated person keep track of how many go into the patient and how many come out. In the midst of the procedure, though, it is all too easy to miss them.

There are now sponges with radio frequency (RFID) tags, so at the end of the procedure, someone scans each and ensures all are accounted for. Medical experts believe this technology can spare patients from injury and save millions in health care costs that occur due to extended hospital stays and additional surgeries to remove sponges. 

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