Top 10 health technology hazards for 2017

The safe use of health technology-from basic infusion pumps to large, complex imaging systems-requires identifying possible sources of danger or difficulty with those technologies and taking steps to minimize the likelihood that adverse events will occur. This list will help healthcare facilities do that.

Produced each year by ECRI Institute’s Health Devices Group, the Top 10 Health Technology Hazards list identifies the potential sources of danger that it believes warrant the greatest attention for the coming year. The list does not enumerate the most frequently reported problems or the ones associated with the most severe consequences-although such information is certainly considered in the analysis. Rather, the list reflects the Health Devices Group’s judgment about which risks should receive priority now.

All the items on the list represent problems that can be avoided or risks that can be minimized through the careful management of technologies. Additional content provided with the full article, which is available separately to members of certain ECRI Institute programmes, provides guidance to help manage the risks. In this way, the list serves as a tool that healthcare facilities can use to prioritize their patient safety efforts.

International Hospital presents here the abridged version of ECRI Institute’s 2017 Top 10 list of health technology hazards which is available as a free public service to inform healthcare facilities about important safety issues involving the use of medical devices and systems.

1. Infusion errors can be deadly if simple safety steps are overlooked
Most large-volume infusion pumps incorporate safety mechanisms for reducing the risks of potentially deadly intravenous (IV) infusion errors. These mechanisms have greatly improved infusion safety, but can’t eliminate all potential errors. And the mechanisms themselves have been known to fail.
ECRI Institute continues to learn about and investigate incidents of infusion errors involving pump or administration set failures, staff unknowingly defeating a safety mechanism, or incorrect infusion programming. Such errors- particularly those that result in the uncontrolled flow of medication to the patient, known as ‘IV free flow’-can lead to patient harm and even death.

In many of these incidents, harm could have been averted if staff had:

  • Noticed signs of physical damage to infusion pump components
  • Made appropriate use of the roller clamp on the IV tubing
  • Checked the drip chamber beneath the medication reservoir for unexpected flow

Once commonplace, these simple practices are now often overlooked-perhaps because staff implicitly trust the pump’s advanced safety features.

2. Inadequate cleaning of complex reusable instruments can lead to infections
The use of contaminated medical instruments can lead to disabling or deadly patient infections or instrument malfunctions.
Outbreaks associated with the use of contaminated duodenoscopes-such as those that caused headlines in recent years-illustrate the severity of this issue. But duodenoscopes are not the only devices that warrant attention. ECRI Institute has received reports involving a variety of contaminated medical instruments that have been used, or almost used, on patients.
Complex, reusable instruments-such as endoscopes, cannulated drills, and arthroscopic shavers-are of particular concern. They can be difficult to clean and then disinfect or sterilize (i.e., reprocess) between uses, and the presence of any lingering contamination on, or in, the instrument can be difficult to detect.
Often, we find that inattention to the cleaning steps within the reprocessing protocol is a contributing factor. Healthcare facilities should verify that comprehensive reprocessing instructions are available to staff and that all steps are consistently followed, including precleaning of the device at the point of use.

3. Missed ventilator alarms can lead to patient harm
Ventilator alarm management challenges complicate efforts to prevent patient harm resulting from missed alarms. Ventilators deliver life-sustaining therapy, and a missed alarm could be deadly. Concerns include:

  • Alarm fatigue-in which staff become overwhelmed by, distracted by, or desensitized to the number of alarms that activate.
  • Alarm notification failures-in which alarms are not effectively communicated to staff.

These concerns, and the ways to manage them, are similar to those that exist with physiologic monitoring systems, which we have addressed in previous Top 10 Health Technology Hazards lists. Ventilators, however, pose some unique challenges. For example: Collecting and analysing ventilator alarm data can be difficult, making it harder for hospitals to identify where their vulnerabilities lie. And the options for supplementing a ventilator’s alarms-so that the alarm can be noticed outside the patient’s room, for example-are limited.
As a result, ventilators will require different methods for studying the problem and different strategies for addressing it.

4. Undetected opioid-induced respiratory depression
Patients receiving opioids-such as morphine, hydromorphone, or fentanyl-are at risk for drug-induced respiratory depression. If not detected, this condition can quickly lead to anoxic brain injury or death. Thus, spot checks every few hours of a patient’s oxygenation and ventilation are inadequate.
Drug-induced respiratory depression is of particular concern for patients receiving parenteral and neuraxial opioids in medical-surgical and general care areas. However, it is also of concern for hospital or ambulatory surgery/endoscopy facility patients receiving opioids during procedural sedation and while in the postanesthesia care unit (PACU).

Even if they are otherwise healthy, such patients can be at risk if, for example:

  • They are receiving another drug that also has a sedating effect
  • They have diagnosed or undiagnosed sleep apnea or other conditions that predispose them to respiratory compromise
  • They receive more medication than intended-for example, because of a medication error

ECRI Institute recommends that healthcare facilities implement measures to continuously monitor the adequacy of ventilation of these patients and has recently tested and rated monitoring devices for this application.

5. Infection risks with heater-cooler devices used in cardiothoracic surgery
Heater-cooler systems have been identified as a potential source of nontuberculous mycobacteria (NTM) infections in heart surgery. The likelihood of infection during surgery is not fully understood. However, these infections can be life-threatening and have resulted in patient deaths.
Heater-cooler systems are used in cardiothoracic surgeries to warm or cool the patient by extracorporeal heat exchange with the patient’s blood during heart-lung bypass procedures. These devices circulate warm or cold water through a closed circuit. Water in the circuit is not intended to come into direct contact with the patient or the patient’s circulating blood. However, aerosolized water carried by air from the exhaust vents of contaminated heater-coolers has been suggested as a cause of NTM infections.
Initial reports focused on one specific model of heater-cooler, but models from other suppliers could likewise become contaminated under certain circumstances and if appropriate precautions are not taken.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued recommendations for all heater-cooler devices; they are intended to help prevent and manage device contamination risks and to minimize patient exposure to heater-cooler exhaust air, which may contain aerosolized contaminated water.

6. Software management gaps put patients, and patient data, at risk
Inadequate medical device software management can delay a facility’s responses to safety alerts, allow cybersecurity vulnerabilities to be exploited, and impact patient safety.
Maintaining a central repository of up-to-date and easily retrievable information about the software versions used in a healthcare facility’s medical devices is challenging. But failure to do so leaves the facility ill-prepared to effectively manage software updates and alerts.

Mismanagement of software updates and alerts can adversely affect patient care or impact patient/staff safety- for example, by:

  • Causing downtime or otherwise affecting the performance of medical devices or interconnected systems
  • Delaying identification and implementation of key software updates, including those that address safety concerns
  • Allowing cybersecurity vulnerabilities to persist, possibly leading to lost, stolen, or inaccessible data

To address the hazard, a healthcare facility should verify that its computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) provides the capabilities needed to effectively track software versions for its medical devices and systems. In addition, the facility should establish practices for keeping the software version information in the CMMS current and complete.

7. Occupational radiation hazards in hybrid ORs
Clinicians working in hybrid ORs-operating suites that include built-in x-ray imaging systems-are at risk of unnecessary occupational exposures to ionizing radiation if appropriate precautions are not consistently followed.
Particular concern exists in this environment because hybrid OR staff may be less knowledgeable than radiology and interventional radiology staff about the risks of radiation exposure, and they may be less experienced at taking appropriate precautions.
In addition, with the increasing reliance on X-ray imaging systems during complex OR procedures, an increasing number of specialists and staff members who previously would have had little exposure to ionizing radiation during surgeries are now participating in these procedures.
Because long-term exposure to radiation increases the risk of cancer, it is imperative that hybrid OR staff obtain OR-specific radiation protection training, that they put this training into action, and that available tools and methods be used to minimize radiation exposures.

8. Automated dispensing cabinet setup and use errors may cause medication mishaps
Poor choices made when setting up automated dispensing cabinets (ADCs), as well as mistakes made during use, can lead to harmful medication errors.
Medication errors and near misses associated with ADCs have been traced to insufficient planning when setting up medication drawers, as well as errors made when stocking them. Incidents reported to ECRI Institute include: the presence of the wrong drug or dose in an ADC pocket, the availability of high-alert drugs in unsecured areas of the cabinet, and the unavailability of needed drugs.
Problems such as these have resulted in delays in patient care and the administration of incorrect drugs or drug concentrations, leading in some cases to severe patient injury.

Careful planning is required to determine:

  • Which medications should be available in a particular care area
  • Where in the drawer a medication should be placed (e.g., to reduce the chances that one drug will be mistaken for another)
  • Whether locked pockets or other control mechanisms should be used to further restrict access to certain medications

9. Surgical stapler misuse and malfunctions
Problems associated with the use and functioning of surgical staplers can lead to intraoperative hemorrhaging, tissue damage, unexpected postoperative bleeding, failed anastomoses, and other forms of patient harm.
Surgical staplers require meticulous technique to operate, and problems during use are not uncommon. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration receives thousands of adverse event reports related to surgical staplers each year, and ECRI Institute likewise consistently receives reports of surgical stapler problems. Although severe injuries are infrequent, they do occur: We have investigated fatalities and other cases of serious patient harm.
Commonly reported problems include: misfiring or difficulty in firing, misapplied staples, unusual sounds during firing (which can indicate a damaged or malfunctioning mechanism), and tissue becoming ‘jammed’ in the mechanism.
To prevent patient harm, users must be familiar with device operation, they must carefully select the appropriate staple size for the patient and tissue type, and they must be alert to the signs that the stapler may not be functioning as intended.

10. Device failures caused by cleaning products and practices
The use of cleaning agents or cleaning practices that are incompatible with the materials used in a medical device’s construction, or that are otherwise inappropriate for the device’s design, can cause the device to malfunction or to fail prematurely, possibly affecting patient care. Specifically:

  • Repeated use of incompatible cleaning agents can damage equipment surfaces and degrade plastics, often resulting in device breakage-possibly with no visible warning signs.
  • The use of improper cleaning practices can damage seals, degrade lubricants, and cause fluid intrusion. This can result in damage to electronics, power supplies, and motors.

Because there is no single cleaner or cleaning process that will work with all devices, hospitals must stock and use multiple cleaning products and familiarize staff with device-specific cleaning methods-tasks that pose a significant burden. Nevertheless, failure to do so can lead to ineffective cleaning (a potentially deadly circumstance), as well as excessive component breakage and premature equipment failures (which can affect patient care and be a significant financial burden).