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Published On February 12, 2016

TECHNOLOGY

Babel in the ICU

Machines in an ICU can't speak to one another—but what if they could?

Preventable medical errors may account for more than 100,000 deaths per year. These errors are primarily caused by failures of communication—a chart misread, or the wrong data passed along to a machine or a colleague.

Part of the problem could be solved if the machines could just speak to one another. Devices in hospital wards, which monitor everything from oxygen intake to the tilt of the hospital bed, are made by many manufacturers, which have little incentive to make their proprietary code—the language that makes the machines run—easy to process by their competitors’ machines. So that task of middleman falls to harried hospital staff.

A number of medical technology teams are championing a new international standard they call Integrated Clinical Environment (ICE), a language that would allow the medical devices in a hospital to speak to one another. Julian Goldman, who runs a pioneering device interoperability program at Massachusetts General Hospital, estimates that such an effort could prevent up to 35% of the injuries and deaths caused by medical errors. And a lingua franca, in addition to saving lives, could pave the way to collecting and recording more rich clinical data on patients in delicate situations, making it easier to deliver precision medicine.