IT and breast implants

What could IT possibly have to do with the emerging scandal about the safety of breast implants made by the bankrupt French company PIP? Quite a lot, actually. There are a number of issues involved: The manufacturer’s criminal use of...


What could IT possibly have to do with the emerging scandal about the safety of breast implants made by the bankrupt French company PIP? Quite a lot, actually.

There are a number of issues involved:

  1. The manufacturer’s criminal use of industrial grade, rather than medical grade silicon, in the implants.
  2. A failure by the manufacturer to keep adequate records of what it made, in what quantities and to whom it supplied its products.
  3. The wholly inadequate response of the UK authorities when the scandal emerged - effectively saying the implants were safe, then calling for an evidence review, then admitting it lacked the data on which to make decisions and lacked the power, other than the threat to ‘name and shame’, to get basic data from private health providers.
  4. The failure to create a basic health record in the UK means that millions of people, not just those with potentially dodgy breast implants, do not know the provenance of the medical devices in their bodies - heart pacemakers and stents, new hips and knees - and much else.
  5. While IT struggles to portray itself as a profession, with as much validity and authority as traditional occupations, such as law and medicine, sections of the medical profession, at least, have hardly shown themselves to be role models we should follow.

Of course IT alone can’t deal with all these issues, but it has a real part to play.

IT cannot prevent cynical, conscious, criminal action such as that perpetrated by the directors of PIP when they decided to cut costs and boost flagging profits by replacing medical-grade silicon with industrial silicon. However, good IT systems at regulators, combined with the mandatory supply of data from suppliers could make such actions more difficult to perpetrate and easier to spot.

Proper records of what products are manufactured and sold, when, where and to whom, would prevent a repeat of the PIP scandal where the company cannot say how many potentially dangerous implants it provided and who it sold them to. Estimates vary but between 300,000 and 400,000 women in 65 countries from Europe to Latin America may have implants with silicon more suited for sealing pipes in a chemical works than use in the human body.

A proper medical record, designed for the benefit of the patient and the clinician, rather than government bureaucrats would allow appropriate monitoring and check-ups in the event of health scares.

We are constantly being told to take responsibility for our own health, but how many people could tell you the date of manufacture, serial and batch number and manufacturer of whatever is inside them? Your life might depend on it, so why don’t we have this information available on basic medical record?

Does the NHS, one of the most centralised and one of the best health care systems in the world, have a proper database of the medicines and medical devices it purchases? To ask the question is to know the answer. There is partial information available at best.

Why don’t we have a public website with complete data about medicines and medical devices posted on it, together with any changes in specification? The NHS would not need to crunch the data. There are plenty of people who would do that for them and flag up significant trends.

Health IT has been a battleground in the UK for the last decade. The madly centralised National Programme for IT in the NHS (NPfIT) passed another ignominious milestone at the end of December when the government refused to sign a revised contract with a key supplier CSC, which was forced to write off £960 million, in a move that could threaten its very existence.

Whether the NPfIT is effectively dead, as the government would have us believe, or whether it lives on in disguise, as some of the programme’s critics suggest, we should not underestimate the role of IT in improving healthcare and potentially preventing a repeat of PIP implant-type scandals.

Big data, open data, analytics and business intelligence are industry buzz words for 2012. They are also potential life savers.

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