Tuesday, 8 April 2014

A mutual failure of discovery: DIB and DiCoT

Today, I have been doing literature searching for a paper on Distributed Cognition (DCog). By following a chain of references, I happened upon a paper on Determining Information Flow Breakdown (DIB). DIB is a method for applying the theory of DCog in a semi-structured way in complex settings. The example the authors use in the paper comes from healthcare.

The authors state that "distributed cognition is a theoretical approach without an accepted analytical method; there is no single 'correct way' of using it. [...] the DIB method is a practical application of the theory." At the time that work was published (2007), there were at least two other published methods for applying DCog: the Resources Model (2000) and DiCoT (Distributed Cognition for Teamwork; 2006). The developers of DIB were clearly unaware of this previous work. Conversely, it has taken me seven years from when the DIB paper was published to become aware of it and my team have been working on DCog in healthcare for most of that time. How could that happen?

I can think of several answers involving parallel universes, different literatures, too many different journals to keep track of, the fragility of search terms, needles in haystacks. You take your pick.

Whatever the answer actually is (and it's probably something to do with a needle in another universe), it's close to being anti-serendipity: a connection that is obvious and should have been expected. We clearly have some way to go in developing information discovery tools that work well.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Never mind the research, feel the governance

In the past 5 days, I have received and responded to:
  • 16 emails from people in the university, the REC and the hospital about one NHS ethics application that required a two-word change to one information sheet after it had already been approved by both the university and the REC - but the hospital spotted a minor problem and now it has to go around the whole cycle again, which is likely to take several weeks at least.
  • 6 emails about who exactly should sign one of the forms in a second ethics application (someone in the university or the hospital).
  • 12 emails about the set of documents (I lost count of what's needed past 20 items) needed for a third application.
I dread to think what the invisible costs of all these communications and actions are, when scaled up to all the people involved in the process (and my part is a small one because I delegate most of the work to others), and to all the ethics applications that are going on in parallel.

I thought I was getting to grips with the ethics system for the NHS; I had even thought that it was getting simpler, clearer and more rational over time. But recent experiences show otherwise. This is partly because we're working with a wider range of hospitals than previously, and every one seems to have its own local procedures and requirements. Some people are wonderful and really helpful; others seem to consider it to be their job to find every possible weakness and block progress. I have wondered at times whether this is because we are not NHS employees (or indeed even trained clinicians). But it seems not: clinical colleagues report similar problems; in fact, they've put a cost on the delays that they have experienced through the ethical clearance process. Those costs run into hundreds of thousands of pounds. We don't do research to waste money like this, but to improve the quality and safety of patient care.

Today, there's an article in the Guardian about the under-resourcing of the health service and the impact this is having on patient care. Maybe I'm naive, but if the inefficiencies that we find in the process of gaining permission to conduct a research study in the NHS are replicated in all other aspects of health service delivery, it's no wonder they feel under-resourced.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Looking for the keys under the lamp post? Are we addressing the right problems?

Recently, I received an impassioned email from a colleague: "you want to improve the usability of the bloody bloody infusion pump I am connected to? give it castors and a centre of gravity so I can take it to the toilet and to get a cup of coffee with ease". Along with photos to illustrate the point.

He's completely right: these are (or should be) important design considerations. People still want to live their lives and have independence as far as possible, and that's surely in the interests of staff as well as patients and their visitors.

In this particular case, better design solutions have been proposed and developed. But I've never seen one of these in use. I've seen plenty of other improvised solutions such as the bed-bound patient being wheeled from one ward to another with a nurse walking alongside holding up the bag of fluid while the pump is balanced on the bed with the patient.

Why don't hospitals invest in better solutions? I don't know. Presumably because the problem is invisible to the people who make purchasing decisions, because staff and patients are accustomed to making do with the available equipment, and because better equipment costs more but has minimal direct effect on patient outcomes.

An implication of the original message is that in CHI+MED we're addressing the wrong problem: that in doing research on interaction design we're missing the in-your-face problem that the IV pole is so poorly designed. That we're like the drunk looking for the keys under the lamp post because that's where the light is, when in fact the keys got dropped somewhere else. Others who claim that the main problem in patient safety is infection control are making the same point: we're focusing our attention in the wrong place.

I wish there were only one problem to solve – one key to be found, under the lamp post or elsewhere. But that's not the case. In fact, in healthcare there are so many lost keys that they can be sought and found all over the place. Excuse me while I go and look for some more...