Last week the Lifespan hospital chain in Rhode Island disclosed that as many as 2,000 patients were given the wrong medicines because of a computer glitch. But, as a report by an Institute of Medicine panel notes, that’s hardly the only potential hazard that has emerged amid the federally mandated shift to electronic medical records.

As a news release from the institute put it, “serious errors involving these technologies–including medication dosing errors, failure to detect fatal illnesses, and treatment delays due to poor human-computer interactions or loss of data–have led to several reported patient deaths and injuries.”

Those problems have prompted the institute, an influential advisory organization that is part of the National Academy of Sciences, to call for the creation of an independent federal agency to investigate problems linked to computerized medical records. As The Associated Press reports, it would be modeled after the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates, but does not regulate, the transportation industry.

The Department of Health and Human Services requested the institute’s report based on concerns that the nation’s shift to digital records, now in full swing, might bring a wave of technology-induced medical errors.

As the AP noted, an estimated 44,000 to 98,000 people die every year due to medical errors in hospitals, and examples abound of hospitals that have improved safety by going electronic. Still, the report found little evidence that such improvements are being made across the health care system.

The Obama administration wants most hospitals and doctors to switch from paper to computerized records by 2015, and is investing as much as $27 billion over 10 years in incentives for the purchase of new systems.

The report, however, raised concerns about the private companies delivering the new records systems to hospitals and doctors’ offices. It said that the vendors lack economic motivation to share information about their failures, particularly ones that result in patients being harmed. That can leave medical decision-makers in the dark about problems that need to be corrected.

 STUART SILVERSTEIN

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