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Deadly Ebola lessons include value of electronic health records

As deadly as Ebola is, it’s not surprising that it took on the mantle as the biggest health scare in recent medical history. What may be more interesting is how relatively quickly it receded into the background. You barely hear any news about it at all here in Oregon or anywhere else.

But it’s apparent from some of the headlines we’ve seen that Ebola is not off the world stage. Indeed, it was the topic of some attention at a recent American Bar Association conference. And as it turns out, it nicely dovetails with last week’s post about some medical technology that would clearly help prevent medical errors, if only it were more widely adopted. What we’re talking about, of course, are electronic health records.

At the ABA conference earlier this month, a nurse from Dallas offered the observation that proper design and use of EHRs could do a lot to reduce the number of cases of misdiagnosis, and thus the number of medical malpractice claims against health care providers. And her key case in point was the first Ebola death in the U.S. within days of the patient having been discharged from a Dallas hospital emergency room.

Sharon McQuown, a registered nurse working with a Dallas law firm, told the audience that much of the misdiagnosis in the case could be linked to the EHR that had been developed on the patient.

She says the record included the fact that the man had recently returned from Liberia and that his vital signs had changed. The travel data hadn’t been highlighted and an investigation after the man’s death couldn’t confirm if the doctor had read that section of the report. McQuown said the man’s discharge might have been prevented if there had been face-to-face communication among ER staff, but it’s not clear that happened, either.

The family of this man got help with the process of a wrongful death suit. The case settled the day after it was filed. McQuown says there’s hope for EHRs, but there are still some issues to address, such as the risk of transmitting bad information by cutting and pasting.

Some errors are accidental. Some are completely preventable. When negligent errors cause someone’s death, is there any good excuse for why action wasn’t taken?