What can we learn when data and technology fail us?

As nations join together in the search for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight 370 and its 239 passengers and crew, one of the many questions being asked is how this could happen—how is it possible for a massive aircraft to simply vanish without a trace? This question is rooted in our trust that modern technology, specifically when purposefully applied in systems used to keep us safe and secure, would not or should not allow for such a catastrophic failure.

We are also drawn to this story by our empathy for those affected as well as our own personal concerns as we imagine ourselves or our loved ones boarding a plane and suffering a similarly unimaginable plight. We are assured that such “system” failures are very rare in aviation, and the facts bear this out. But such system failures are far too common in another, more familiar venue, where technology is entrusted to help keep us safe and secure, and where human losses are staggeringly greater—our nation’s hospitals.

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Each year as many as 440,000 people die as a result of preventable actions in U.S. hospitals—the equivalent of more than three airline crashes each and every day. Just as with Malaysian Airlines flight 370, here too we should question how it is that a technology-enabled system is failing us. It is perhaps an even more urgent question given the very high likelihood that every one of us will be in a hospital at some time, where the relative safety risks are massively greater than those for airline travel.

A popular point of discussion with the loss of flight 370 is that there was a missing and otherwise expected continuous stream of data from many parts of the plane back to ground based stations. And, if recovered, the plane’s ‘black box’ certainly will be expected to contain a wealth of  recorded data to help us all understand what went wrong and, possibly, how to learn from this disaster to make airline travel safer.

But in our hospitals, where the human loss is far greater, there are no “black boxes,” no seamlessly recorded data so that information can be shared and studied after each patient death. Complex devices and systems that we rely on to help care for our ill and injured do not smoothly communicate with each other or even with a hospital’s own information systems, leaving the burden of collecting, communicating, integrating and interpreting to already overwhelmed clinicians. Sharing this vital information seamlessly between all of the devices and systems involved in a patient’s care is critical in preventing medical errors that have led to an epidemic of preventable harms and deaths in our nation’s hospitals.

We hope to soon learn the fate of Malaysian flight 370, what we learn may make airline travel safer in some incremental way.  Shouldn’t we demand the same from our healthcare system?

Smith (@Unaffordable_Rx) is chief medical and science officer of the West Health Institute, an independent, non-profit medical research organization focused on lowering the cost of healthcare.