Could intensive care units be redesigned to function more like cockpits?

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    Could cockpit design offer insights into creating more efficient intensive care units in hospitals?

    A Philadelphia engineering and innovations firm is proposing an aviation-inspired ICU makeover.

    Intensive care units are noisy and chaotic places. Gravely ill patients, hooked to several beeping machines. Alarms going off constantly.

    Keith Karn, a researcher at Bressler Group who previously worked in aviation, said ICUs remind him a lot of how cockpits used to be.

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    “A lot of equipment scattered that doesn’t talk to each other, all competing for the attention of the users, in this case nurses and physicians’ attention, with a lot of different information,” he explained.

    The aviation industry was able to streamline the flow of information in cockpits, Karn said, and he believes that hospitals could learn lessons from that process. He’s studied information flow in the ICU setting and has written about his findings and analyses.

    “The big challenge is to get these systems talking to each other and integrating that information in a way that makes the decision makers’ work easier,” he said.

    That prospect sounds good to Dr. Bob Wachter, who studies the impact of technology on medicine. Wachter, professor and chairman of the department of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, agrees that intensive care units are absolutely overwhelming.

    “It’s an incredible assault on the senses, and for a mere human being trying to keep track of it, it’s extraordinarily difficult,” he said.

    Medicine could take clues from the aviation field, Wachter said. In fact, he spent time at Boeing while researching his book, “The Digital Doctor.” But he cautioned that it will be more complicated than cockpit redesign, because, in an ICU setting, every user has different needs.

    “In my world, what one particular doctor needs, what the intensive care doctor needs, may be vastly different from what the lung specialist needs, or what the nurse needs,” he said. “You’ll have something that changes depending on who walks in the room to use the dashboard.”

    Karn plans to study more ICUs to get a better sense of how a redesigned information system could best work.

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