Medical wristbands: Digital Medical EraWHEN Cyclone Yasi loomed off the Far Northern coastline in February 2011, patients and staff were forced out of Cairns Hospital in the largest peacetime evacuation of a hospital in Queensland history.
There were scenes of patients being rushed from the hospital with their medical records literally strapped to their chests. It was the only way to ensure their bulky paperwork did not go astray.
It is chaotic scenes like this we are likely to never see again following Cairns Hospital’s changeover to electronic medical records.
In March this year, the 138-year-old hospital became the largest regional hospital in Australia to go “paperless” through its new Digital Hospital system.
The $31.5 million program aims to remove the need for paper records and charts, allowing staff to see patient information across a number of wards and facilities.
Since its rollout it has been anything but a perfect changeover, with reports from clinicians of the eHealth software being too unreliable, and distracting them from patient care; and of a worrying significant increase in the number of mislabelled blood tests, known as Wrong Blood in Tube or WBIT incidents.
But hospital executives assure these are just teething problems, and once these have been worked through, it will revolutionise the way Far North Queenslanders receive medical treatment.
The biggest change is what patients experience when they enter the hospital through the emergency department.
Patients, upon their arrival at the ED, are fitted with wristbands, each with a unique barcode identifier that staff can scan anywhere in the hospital.
Digital Hospital support officer Jacquie Wilkinson said this allowed a patient’s electronic medical records to be accessed at any time during all stages of their journey through the health department.
“If you came into the ED from an accident or something like that, people would have gotten the details, and then we would have rung the ward to see whether they could retrieve your medical chart,” she said.
“The ward would have gone off to collect the chart.
“On a good day we might have the chart 20 minutes later.
“Now I put your name and date of birth in and instantly I know your full medical history.
“Instantly we know what you’re allergic to.”
Digital Hospital combines several software programs, providing new computerised ways of carrying out traditional hospital procedures.
Blood tests, for example, are taken at patient bedsides, and labels printed out on mobile printers.
The hospital’s director of emergency medicine Dr Richard Stone said any issues with WBIT came down to the steep learning curve among staff trying to wrap their heads around the new system.
“You’re actually introducing a very complex digital environment to a complex medical environment, and it’s going to be difficult,” he said.
“It’s going to take time to settle into that. We’ve come from a system that has been decades using paper records.
“It’s a big step to go into a digital world, and some people take a long time to get used to.”