An article in Tech Cheat Sheet asks the question “Do Flaws in Technology Make Medicine Less Safe?” The author examines the growing use of electronic health records (EHR) and their potential role in errors in diagnosis or treatment. While they are intended to help healthcare providers share important information about patients and reduce errors due to poor handwriting or typos, EHR systems can result in other types of errors. As the article cites, an electronic form might expect a medicine dosage be entered using one unit of measure, while the person entering the data might use a different unit of measure.

The article mentions another possible source of error, however. Many of these EHR systems will generate an alert when some value appears to be outside the expected range, or if there is some other condition that might need the healthcare professional’s attention. It turns out that these systems can generate lots of these alerts, and in the vast majority of cases, it’s a false alarm. As a result, the people entering data and working with these systems learn to expect these false alerts and get in the habit of routinely bypassing them. This makes it too easy to miss an alert that indicates a truly serious situation.

The same potential lies in wearable Health Tech devices. It’s relatively¬†simple to gather data on steps or heart rate or blood pressure, but that information is of little use without analysis and reporting. The average user is not equipped to interpret this data, and so we will rely on applications to make decisions based on the data. When the analysis is limited to whether or not you have accomplished your daily exercise goal, the accuracy of the analysis and reporting is not of critical importance. But once these devices start providing feedback about possible heart rate abnormalities, problems with blood sugar levels, or other health-related information, there is the potential for false alarms. And if the devices and their apps cry “Wolf!” too often, they may train their users to ignore the alerts. Dialing in the sensitivity of the feedback loop will be an important factor in determining whether or not these devices will do more harm than good.

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