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Canberran's computer program may prove to be a life and cost saver

Canberra Times logo Canberra Times 26/05/2014 Natasha Boddy
Successful trial: Matt Darling, who has developed a computerised support system, SmartWard, for hospital staff. © Nick Cubbin Successful trial: Matt Darling, who has developed a computerised support system, SmartWard, for hospital staff.

A hospital computer system invented by a Canberra man is helping cut down on paperwork and letting nurses spend more time with patients, with a successful trial of the IT system finding it could potentially save lives and millions of dollars. 

Matt Darling's invention SmartWard has just been successfully trialled in Victoria, with results from a clinical trial released on Monday finding the program tripled the amount of time nurses spent interacting with patients while halving the time spent on documentation.  

SmartWard is run on small computers at a patient's bedside and other points of care, allowing nurses to continually update information in real time. The system uses "smart sensors" to validate medication and track staff and equipment so they be found quickly in emergencies. 

Mr Darling, who was born in Canberra and lives in O'Connor, developed the IT system after the death of his daughter in 2008 and his experience and observations of acute care in a hospital ward.

"I was amazed by the huge amount of time which was being spent on admin," he said.

"From my point of view, and in talking to staff, they were actually overwhelmingly unhappy about the situation. Their view was that they signed up for what is a very difficult job with a view to helping people and to find themselves chasing and filling in bits of paper all day, from their perspective, at the expense of patients, rather than for their good, was a huge problem."

Under the Victorian trial of SmartWard, the time nurses spent on documentation decreased from 15.7 per cent to 6.4 per cent while their interaction with patients increased from 7.95 per cent to 23.6 per cent. With SmartWard, 61 per cent of nurses did their documentation at a patient's bedside rather than later, compared with just 24.8 per cent previously. 

The trial was the culmination of a three-year research collaboration between Deakin University, RMIT University, Eastern Health, Epworth HealthCare and SmartWard. 

An analysis of the Victorian trial estimates that by increasing the time nurses spent with patients, SmartWard could save a 600-bed hospital between $4.2 million and $5.7 million a year just through reduced length of stays. It is also predicted it has the capacity to save lives through nurse time reallocation. 

Mr Darling said the staff who took part in the trial also reported the IT system had allowed them to deliver the care for which they were trained. He said SmartWard also allowed for more accurate record-keeping because a patient's file could be updated at the bedside and in real time. 

"I think this is going to be a huge reduction in the amount of admin that healthcare professionals are required to do and it will increase the amount of time that can be spent with patients, which is going to translate into better outcomes," he said.

Alfred Deakin professor Mari Botti, chairwoman in nursing at the Epworth/Deakin Centre for Clinical Nursing Research and principal investigator of the trial, said the trial results showed the enormous potential of the technology. 

"I think what's exciting about SmartWard is that nurses do find the technology highly acceptable and they can use it and it fits well with the way they work," she said. 

"The trial found nursing activities became focused at the bedside, rather than in other places in the ward, in particular, in the nurses' station, so they're spending more time with the patients doing tasks with them and documenting care and, as a consequence, they're spending more time interacting with patients." 

Nurses in the trial also reported the system reduced interruptions and the need to multitask, which both have the potential to increase the risk of error and missed care. Nurses also reported increased compliance with clinical care guidelines and that they no longer had to search for documents because the electronic records were always available, making it easy to access information and improve clinical decision making.

International studies show increasing the time nurses spend with patients delivers improved patient outcomes, such as reduced hospital stays and incidence of complications. 

The success of the Victorian trial has led some hospitals to start planning to use SmartWard. 

Mr Darling is in advanced negotiations with a large company with national reach to enable the program to be introduced across the country. 

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