PLUG AND PLAY: a term that originally referred to the configuration of various consumer electronics to communicate with each other without the user’s involvement, and that is now gaining currency within health care, referring to the interoperability of medical devices to improve safety and efficiency.

If a patient on a ventilator requires a chest X-ray, an operator may need to shut off the ventilator briefly to prevent her lung movement from blurring the image, and there’s a risk the operator will forget to restart the ventilator. But what if the two machines could synchronize efforts, ruling out the chance of human error? Such are the scenarios under study by the Medical Device “Plug-and-Play” Interoperability Program started in 2004. A collaboration between the Massachusetts General Hospital, the Partners HealthCare Information System, the Department of Defense and Boston health care technology consortium CIMIT, the initiative has brought together doctors, engineers, other health care delivery systems, medical device manufacturers and government agencies, such as the FDA, which regulates medical instruments.

Julian M. Goldman, an anesthesiologist at the MGH and the program’s director, estimates that the first plug-and-play products will appear within three years. He expects that plug-and-play devices will eventually operate throughout hospitals, most notably in areas providing acute care, where they could significantly improve patient safety.