Managing the surprisingly troublesome impact of real-time healthcare on clinical decision-making

We live in an age of instant gratification. From the texts we send friends and family to the orders we place on Amazon.com, we’ve come to expect immediate results: instant responses, next-day shipping, etc.

The idea of immediacy in healthcare communications is not new. In fact, in 2015, healthcare analyst Gartner outlined a vision for what it dubbed the “real-time health system”—a landscape where healthcare professionals will be constantly aware of what’s happening within their systems and with their patients.

As a person living in the digital age, you’ve probably experienced real-time awareness in other parts of your life: the repetitive dings of received text messages, the intermittent beeps of calendar alerts, the near-constant hum as your smartphone vibrates over and over to let you know your mother, children and cousins have uploaded photos to Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. In fact, as I’m typing this piece, I’ve heard alerts for two personal text messages that I’ve yet to look at (the temptation is maddening), four work-related emails (that I did have to stop and look at), a notification that someone commented on a thread I replied to on Facebook and more.

While there’s definitely a benefit to each of us knowing what’s happening in our expanded universe in real time—and we can easily draw a direct line to the benefits that doctors, nurses and patients would experience if they could communicate instantaneously while coordinating care—the influx of information is simply overwhelming.

And when alarm fatigue sets in, important messages get missed, the communication cycle breaks down and what was once a valuable resource becomes a liability. Overwhelmed and inundated clinicians cannot optimally use their invaluable expertise to make effective clinical decisions that deliver great health outcomes.

Aggregating, analyzing and managing the distribution of clinical information

Managing the flow of data and alert fatigue is a real challenge that clinicians and the IT teams that support them need to understand. Clinicians need “just the facts, ma’am,” so to speak, and they need to know which set of facts pertain directly to them and the patients for whom they are caring. Receiving more than enough information is not always a good thing, especially when the situation calls for fast thinking and quick decisions.

Investments made in technologies implemented over the past several years have enabled healthcare as an industry to generate very large amounts of digitized clinical information. The challenge is to aggregate this patient data in real time to generate new knowledge about a patient and distribute it in a way that does not inundate the clinician recipients with unnecessary information. Physicians and nurses should receive information they need in order to act in that moment. Everything else is noise.

Implementing communication-driven workflows

Once new knowledge is made available and deemed relevant to a given clinical situation, it’s important to enable workflows that drive this information to the right care team members, who can take action in that moment. Hospital-based communication workflows must encompass all modalities, adhere to strict security mandates and facilitate reliable exchanges among clinicians across boundaries (e.g., acute, pre-acute and post-acute care settings). This kind of clinical integration is the future of healthcare communications.

If clinicians are inundated with unnecessary information, messages and alerts, combined with a communication workflow that creates barriers to a) finding the right care team member to contact, b) finding the contact method that the clinician prefers and c) knowing whether the intended recipient received the message, the workflow is flawed and is inhibiting the decision-making that leads to higher standards of patient care.

Leveraging clinical expertise

The personal judgment of experienced healthcare professionals is irreplaceable in effective, real-time decision-making. Technological advances are no doubt improving healthcare, but human intuition can never be replaced by a new device or software. However, that intuition can be inhibited by technologies if they are not strategically implemented and managed. In this sense, real-time healthcare could, ironically, be eroding quality.

To truly leverage the hundreds of collective years of clinical expertise housed in the minds of your hospital’s medical staff—the expertise that yields great outcomes—you must remove the barriers to effective communication. Collecting patient data in real time is an important part of that. But analyzing and aggregating that data into digestible, valuable pieces of information that can be easily shared and collaborated on is the follow-through that is often overlooked.

The gravitation toward instant gratification isn’t going away. And it’s important to understand that the concept doesn’t apply simply to generating patient data as healthcare events are occurring, but also to the ability to extract the significant portions and begin collaborating with the broader care team to interpret the data and derive a plan to deliver high-value care.

The important role nurses play in care transition and reducing readmissions

In its simplest form, “care transition” is defined as a hospital discharge or movement from one care setting to another. The risk that readmissions pose to patient safety requires that transitional care processes are under constant evaluation.

Nurses are the linchpin in the coordination of patient care, and thus are best equipped to coordinate a successful transition. The bedside nurse, for example, may understand a great deal more about the patient’s needs as they travel through the care continuum than other care team members. And when those needs are communicated effectively, the nurse is given the opportunity to extend to the patient high-value care beyond organizational boundaries.

Nurses create transitional care plans by compiling all the pertinent patient information and creating instructions to be followed. Then they share the plan in detail with all members of the new care team so that the handoff is seamless for both the patient and the new unit or facility.

The most important factor in transition of care is communication during the handoff process.

What to communicate and when

The goal of the handoff is to safely transfer the patient from one care setting to another (or to discharge the patient from the hospital completely) by exchanging the necessary information with, and by effectively transferring the responsibility of care to, either a new care team or the patient’s family.

It’s a lot to put on any nurse’s plate, but by standardizing and implementing an effective and comprehensive transition communication process, nurses can elevate patient safety, avoid adverse events that lead to costly readmissions and decrease patient anxiety during the transfer process.

It’s important to remember that the transfer process doesn’t apply only to moving a patient from an acute setting to the home or a post-acute environment. There are many different handoff scenarios within the same organization, unit and floor that need your close attention.

For example, nurses should be prepared to provide handoff communication:

  • At shift change
  • During a break
  • When patients are transferred within the hospital (e.g., from the ER to ICU, from radiology to the OR, etc.)

It’s extremely important for the purposes of continuity of care that the communication between the nurse and either the new team of clinicians or the family prepares them in such a way that they’re able to anticipate the patient’s needs and make timely decisions.

At a high level, to adequately prepare the new care team, the following should be included in the handoff communication:

  • Patient care instructions
  • Treatment description
  • Medication history
  • Services received
  • Any recent or anticipated changes

More specifically, and especially in the case of transfers to a new care team or facility, an effective care transition communication plan will include:

  • Patient’s name and age
  • Reason for admission
  • Pertinent co-morbidities
  • Code status
  • Current isolation or precautions
  • Elopement risk
  • Lab results—including any pending and/or abnormal findings
  • Relevant diagnostic studies
  • Fall risk assessment
  • Any assessment findings that are appropriate to the patient’s current health

Many times, nurses on the receiving team care for patients for whom they lack pertinent health data. For example, EKG results are often left out of the transition communication between hospitals and subacute rehabilitation facilities. In this case, if a patient has an episode of chest pain, the receiving team could conduct an EKG on their own, but without prior results to compare with, they can’t successfully rule out something dangerous, such as angina. So, they may err on the side of patient safety and send the patient back to the hospital, resulting in a readmission. However, if an EKG result is included in the transition communication, the receiving team can conduct an EKG on their own, compare the results with the EKG performed at the hospital, and determine whether there is an emergent need for a readmission or the issue is something they can safely handle in their own setting.

Pay extra close attention to medication communications

While including all pertinent test results in the handoff communication is extremely important, there’s another area that needs special attention, because it causes more admissions than any other factor: medication.

It’s estimated that 30% of hospitalized patients have at least one discrepancy on discharge medication reconciliation. Communicating medication details is an area that poses the greatest risk for error as well as the greatest opportunity to effect a positive outcome. In fact, over 66% of emergency readmissions for patients over 65 years old are due to adverse medication events.

Breaches in handoff, such as failure to include specific details of the patient’s medication history and future dosage needs, have dire consequences.

However, defective handoffs are also known to cause problems beyond adverse events. Issues such as delays in care, inappropriate treatment, and increased length of stay arise when transition communication is not strategically planned and delivered.

There are many root causes of a defective handoff, but since nurses play the most important role in the transition communication process, you must strategically develop and communicate the transitional care plan—not only by considering what information you believe should be communicated, but by extending a dialogue to the receiving team and understanding what information they feel is necessary to provide the best follow-up care possible.