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When software fails at the wrong time…

October 22, 2008

I recently had to take my pregnant wife to the hospital to treat a kidney infection.  One of the first things we did after we got into a room was to answer an absolute torrent of medical questions.  The nurse performed data entry into the hospital’s patient management software while she was asking the questions.  The process took about an hour to complete.  All the while my wife was not being treated and was in severe pain.

Now, had nothing gone wrong with the patient management system, the sheer amount of questions would still have taken at least forty-five minutes.  I’ll grant that this time was necessary, especially because my wife is pregnant, to ensure that the diagnosis and treatment were done correctly.  However, the extra fifteen minutes that my wife had to suffer through existed only because of failures in the patient management system.

The first problem was that the nurse was stumped when she tried to put in the answer my wife gave to a question and there was no drop-down entry for it.  The question was “are you allergic to latex?”  The answer, as so often happens in real life, was “sort of”.  The nurse became aggrevated because the choices for her to choose from to enter the answer didn’t include an answer like that (which actually was that she is sensitive to latex).  As a result, the nurse wasted time trying to force my wife’s answer into one of the application’s pre-defined choices.  She actually resorted to trying to talk her into claiming that she has a full-blown allergic reaction to latex when that isn’t true!  A poor implementation of software caused a nurse to do her job poorly.  That is absolutely unacceptable.

The rest of the wasted time was due to some other glitches in the patient management system that weren’t as serious as serious.  The application completely shut down at one point without an obvious cause.  Later, the nurse had to re-type in a few sentence’s worth of explanation three times because the data wouldn’t save properly the first two times.  Fortunately these events didn’t have as much of a negative impact on patient care as the first problem, but they did waste valuable time.

The point is that software developers should always strive to elliminate software failure, yet there are times when failure in software means more than just lost time and money.  That critical failure, as in my anectdote, can cause extended suffering and loss of good, humane care when it is needed most.  If you are a developer on such a software application then you should be ensuring that your software works correctly for real situations.  This incident shows me that the software industry still fails to provide what people really need in real situations.

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