Patient Safety And Process-Aware Information Systems: Interruptions, Interruptions, Interruptions!

Posted on June 12, 2014 I Written By

Chuck Webster, MD, MSIE, MSIS has degrees in Accountancy, Industrial Engineering, Intelligent Systems, and Medicine (from the University of Chicago). He designed the first undergraduate program in medical informatics, was a software architect in a hospital MIS department, and also VP and CMIO for an EHR vendor for over a decade. Dr. Webster helped three healthcare organizations win the HIMSS Davies Award and is a judge for the annual Workflow Management Coalition Awards for Excellence in BPM and Workflow and Awards for Case Management. Chuck is a ceaseless evangelist for process-aware technologies in healthcare, including workflow management systems, Business Process Management, and dynamic and adaptive case management. Dr. Webster tweets from @wareFLO and maintains numerous websites, including EHR Workflow Management Systems (, Healthcare Business Process Management ( and the People and Organizations improving Healthcare with Health Information Technology ( Please join with Chuck to spread the message: Viva la workflow!

This is my fourth of five guest blog posts covering Health IT and EHR Workflow.

When you took a drivers education class, do you remember the importance of mental “awareness” to traffic safety? Continually monitor your environment, your car, and yourself. As in traffic flow, healthcare is full of work flow, and awareness of workflow is the key to patient safety.

First of all, the very act of creating a model of work to be done forces designers and users to very carefully think about and work through workflow “happy paths” and what to do when they’re fallen off. A happy path is a sequence of events that’s intended to happen, and, if all goes well, actually does happen most of the time. Departures from the Happy Path are called “exceptions” in computer programming parlance. Exceptions are “thrown”, “caught”, and “handled.” At the level of computer programming, an exception may occur when data is requested from a network resource, but the network is down. At the level of workflow, an exception might be a patient no-show, an abnormal lab value, or suddenly being called away by an emergency or higher priority circumstance.

Developing a model of work, variously called workflow/process definition or work plan forces workflow designers and workflow users to communicate at a level of abstraction that is much more natural and productive than either computer code or screen mockups.

Once a workflow model is created, it can be automatically analyzed for completeness and consistency. Similar to how a compiler can detect problems in code before it’s released, problems in workflow can be prevented. This sort of formal analysis is in its infancy, and is perhaps most advanced in healthcare in the design of medical devices.

When workflow engines execute models of work, work is performed. If this work would have otherwise necessarily been accomplished by humans, user workload is reduced. Recent research estimates a 7 percent increase in patient mortality for every additional patient increase in nurse workload. Decreasing workload should reduce patient mortality by a similar amount.

Another area of workflow technology that can increase patient safety is process mining. Process mining is similar, by analogy, to data mining, but the patterns it extracts from time stamped data are workflow models. These “process maps” are evidence-based representations of what really happens during use of an EHR or health IT system. Process maps can be quite different, and more eye opening, than process maps generated by asking participants questions about their workflows. Process maps can show what happens that shouldn’t, what doesn’t happen than should, and time-delays due to workflow bottlenecks. They are ideal tools to understand what happened during analysis of what may have caused a possibly system-precipitated medical error.

Yet another area of particular relevance of workflow tech to patient safety is the fascinating relationship between clinical pathways, guidelines, etc. and workflow and process definitions executed by workflow tech’s workflow engines. Clinical decision support, bringing the best, evidence-based medical knowledge to the point-of-care, must be seamless with clinical workflow. Otherwise, alert fatigue greatly reduces realization of the potential.

There’s considerable research into how to leverage and combine representations of clinical knowledge with clinical workflow. However, you really need a workflow system to take advantage of this intricate relationship. Hardcoded, workflow-oblivious systems? There’s no way to tweak alerts to workflow context: the who, what, why, when, where, and how of what the clinical is doing. Clinical decision support will not achieve wide spread success and acceptance until it can be intelligently customized and managed, during real-time clinical workflow execution. This, again, requires workflow tech at the point-of-care.

I’ve saved workflow tech’s most important contribution to patient safety until last: Interruptions.

An interruption–is there anything more dreaded than, just when you are beginning to experience optimal mental flow, a higher priority task interrupts your concentration. This is ironic, since so much of work-a-day ambulatory medicine is essentially interrupt-driven (to borrow from computer terminology). Unexpected higher priority tasks and emergencies *should* interrupt lower priority scheduled tasks. Though at the end of the day, ideally, you’ve accomplished all your tasks.

In one research study, over 50% of all healthcare errors were due to slips and lapses, such as not executing an intended action. In other words, good clinical intentions derailed by interruptions.

Workflow management systems provide environmental cues to remind clinical staff to resume interrupted tasks. They represent “stacks” of tasks so the entire care team works together to make sure that interrupted tasks are eventually and appropriately resumed. Workflow management technology can bring to clinical care many of the innovations we admire in the aviation domain, including well-defined steps, checklists, and workflow tools.

Stay tuned for my fifth, and final, guest blog post, in which I tackle Population Health Management with Business Process Management.