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by Don Jarrell

Time after time in our work with hospitals engaged in improving quality and safety management, I have seen management and staff making the same big mistake. They try to do work that they are not suited for, and more often than not end up overwhelmed because of it.

They are doing tasks that their computers should be doing.

When it comes to dealing with all of the information surrounding quality and safety management:

  • Computers have perfect memories; humans not so much.
  • Computers can store huge amounts of data without forgetting one thing; a human can have a hard time finding the coffee cup they just laid down.
  • Computers can analyze reams of data without fatiguing; humans become error-prone after just a short time engaged in this kind of activity.

Said another way:
Computers are good at:

  • Capturing
  • Storing
  • Computing
  • Repeating
  • Reporting

People are good at:

  • Creating
  • Solving
  • Deciding
  • Learning
  • Acting

Would you ask a computer to do any of the things that people are good at? I hope not. Forget all the talk about artificial intelligence whirling around these days; the fact is that business computers today are not able to match humans in the creating-solving-deciding-learning-acting space.

And the same is true going the other way. Asking a human to infallibly capture-store-compute-repeat-report on an ongoing basis is very far from effective. In fact, it can be significantly risk-prone. Humans should not be doing the work of computers, just like computers are never expected to do the work of humans.

How does this relate to patient care quality and safety management? Data is being generated 7/24/365. Unless all that data is being captured by a computer set up to do productive things with it, humans are left to make sense of it before they can ever get to the tasks that they are good at. Though they may use computers—in the form of endless spreadsheets—to help them organize and analyze, there is no way a human can match a computer for efficient capture-store-compute-repeat-report tasks. As a result, many quality and safety managers spend too much time dealing with data and not enough time gaining insights for solving, deciding and taking action.

The equation for effectiveness, and for improving quality and safety programs, is appropriate division of labor. Set up the computers to do what they do best so that the humans can do what they do best. Think of the computer as an “intelligence enhancer,” taking on tasks it is suited for and providing rich results that can be used by humans to solve challenges and make improvements.

(Side note: I do have a caveat here. I’ve been saying “computer” throughout, but in reality it’s not the computer so much as the software that makes the difference. You can have two identical computers running different software packages designed to perform the same functions, and end up with widely different results. In order to make the division of labor really work, you must have well-designed software that fits your purpose. I’ll be addressing this topic in a future post.)