Clinical Alerts – Why Good Intentions Must Start as Good Ideas

As the heated debate continues about ways to decrease the costs of our healthcare system while simultaneously improving its quality, it is critical to consider the most appropriate place to start – which depends on who you are. Much has been made about the advantages of clinical alerts especially with their use in areas high on the national radar like quality of care, medication use and allergic reactions, and adverse events.   Common sense, though, says walk before you run; in this case its crawl before you run. 

Clinical alerts are most often electronic messages sent via email, text, page, and even automated voice to notify a clinician or group of clinicians to conduct a course of action related to their patient care based on data retrieved in a Clinical Decision Support System (CDSS) designed for optimal outcomes. The rules engine that generates alerts is created specifically for various areas of patient safety and quality like administering vaccines to children, core measure compliance, and preventing complications like venous thromboembolism (VTE) (also a core measure). The benefits of using clinical alerts in various care settings are obvious if the right people, processes, and systems are in place to consume and manage the alerts appropriately. Numerous studies have been done highlighting the right and wrong ways of implementing and utilizing alerts. The best criteria I’ve seen used consider 5 major themes when designing alerts: Efficiency, Usefulness, Information Content, User Interface, and Workflow (I’ve personally confirmed each of these from numerous discussions with clinicians ranging from ED nurses to Anesthesiologists in the OR to hospitalists on the floors). And don’t forget one huge piece of the alerting discussion that often gets overlooked…….the patient! While some of these may be obvious, all must be considered as the design and implementation phases of the alerts progress.

OK, Now Back to Reality

A discussion about how clinical alerting can improve the quality of care is one limited to the very few provider organizations that already have the infrastructure setup and resources to implement such an initiative. This means that if you are seriously considering such a task, you should already have:

  • an Enterprise Data Strategy and Roadmap that tells you how alerts tie into the broader mission;
  • Data Governance  to assign ownership and accountability for the quality of your data and implement standards (especially when it comes to clinical documentation and data entry);
  • standardized process flows that identify points for consistent, discrete data collection;
  • surgeon, physician, anesthesiology, nursing, researcher, and hospitalist champions to gather support from various constituencies and facilitate education and buy-in; and
  •  oh yeah, the technology and skilled staff to support a multi-system, highly integrated, complex rules-based environment that will likely change over time and be more scrutinized………

◊◊Or a strong relationship with an experienced consulting partner capable of handling all of these requirements and transferring the necessary knowledge along the way.◊◊

I must emphasize the second bullet for just a moment; data governance is critical to ensure that the quality of the data being collected passes the highest level of scrutiny, from doctors to administrators. This is of the utmost importance because the data is what forms the basis of the information that decision makers act on. The quickest way to lose momentum and buy in to any project is by putting bad data in front of a group of doctors and clinicians; trust me when I say it is infinitely more difficult to win their trust back once you’ve made that mistake. On the other hand, if they trust the data and understand the value of it in near real time across their spectrum of care, you turn them quickly into leaders willing to champion your efforts. And now you have a solid foundation for any healthcare analytics program.    

If you are like the majority of healthcare organizations in this country, you may have some pieces to this puzzle in various stages of design, development, deployment or implementation. In all likelihood, though, you are at the early stages of the Clinical Alerts Maturity Model


and with all things considered, should have alerting functionality in the later years of your strategic roadmap. Though, there are many  projects with low cost, fast implementations, quick ROIs, and ample examples to glean lessons learned from like, Computerized Physician Order Entry (CPOE), electronic nursing and physician documentation, Picture Archiving System (PACS), and a clinical data repository (CDR) to use alerting as a prototype or proof of concept to demonstrate the broader value proposition. Clinical alerting, to start, should be incorporated alongside projects that have proven impact across the Clinical Alerts Maturity Model before they are rolled out as stand-alone initiatives.

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