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Open Access Research article

Telemedicine in interdisciplinary work practices: On an IT system that met the criteria for success set out by its sponsors, yet failed to become part of every-day clinical routines

Antoinette de Bont* and Roland Bal

Author Affiliations

Department of Health Policy and Management, Erasmus University Medical Center, Post box 1738, 3000 DR Rotterdam, the Netherlands

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BMC Medical Informatics and Decision Making 2008, 8:47  doi:10.1186/1472-6947-8-47

Published: 27 October 2008

Abstract

Background

Information systems can play a key role in care innovations including task redesign and shared care. Many demonstration projects have presented evidence of clinical and cost effectiveness and high levels of patient satisfaction. Yet these same projects often fail to become part of everyday clinical routines. The aim of the paper is to gain insight into a common paradox that a technology can meet the criteria for success set out at the start of the project yet fail to become part of everyday clinical routines.

Methods

We evaluated a telecare service set up to reduce the workload of ophthalmologists. In this project, optometrists in 10 optical shops made digital images to detect patients with glaucoma which were further assessed by trained technicians in the hospital. Over a period of three years, we conducted interviews with the project team and the users about the workability of the system and its integration in practice. Beside the interviews, we analyzed record data to measure the quality of the images. We compared the qualitative accounts with these measurements.

Results

According to our measurements, the quality of the images was at least satisfactory in 90% of the cases, i.e. the images could be used to screen the patients – reducing the workload of the ophthalmologist considerably. However, both the ophthalmologist and the optometrists became increasingly dissatisfied respectively with the perceived quality of the pictures and the perceived workload.

Through a detailed analysis of how the professionals discussed the quality of the pictures, we re-constructed how the notion of quality of the images and being a good professional were constructed and linked. The IT system transformed into a quality system and, at the same time, transformed the notions of being a good professional. While a continuous dialogue about the quality of the pictures became an emblem for the quality of care, this dialogue was hindered by the system and the way the care process was structured.

Conclusion

To conceptualize what telemedicine does in interdisciplinary work practices, a fine-tuned analysis is needed to assess how IT systems re-shape the social relations between professional groups. Such transformations should not be exclusively attributed to the technology itself or to the professionals working with it. Instead we need to assess these technologies through an empirically grounded study of the sociotechnical functioning of telemedicine.