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Research Leads To Safer Sleep During Operations

Clear Day


6 July 2001


Like many anaesthetists, Dr Alan Merry has concerns at the potential for error in administering the complex array of anaesthetics during surgery

He says a 1995 survey of NZ anaesthetists found 89% admitted to giving the wrong drug at some point in their career, causing harm to the patient in around 12.5% of the cases.

Contributing to the problem, says Dr Merry, is outmoded labelling and a theatre workspace that fails to provide the checks and balances needed to avoid human error. He says it’s all part of a wider health sector problem, including a patient getting the wrong drug or even the wrong operation, that is so pervasive that there are calls in the US for healthcare organisations to implement proven safety procedures.

Dr Merry has just completed a research project that has identified ways to minimise human error during anaesthetic procedures, giving patients greater peace of mind and anaesthetists a more robust decision support system.

An anaesthetist and researcher, Dr Merry divides his time between working at Greenlane Hospital and private practice. He admits also to a lifelong fascination with the elements of human error and their contributory causes, so combining it with his field of professional expertise has meant a logical solution to minimising error.

“I set up a company, called Safer Sleep, to step to one side and look at the whole process through research-based methods,” he says. The company received $100,000 in funding through the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology’s Grants for Private Sector Research and Development scheme to assist with the research.

Dr Merry says Greenlane Hospital was very supportive throughout the four-year research programme and is now routinely using the Safer Sleep system in its operating theatres. Nearby Ascot private hospital is the first to use it commercially.

The system has gone right back to the starting blocks; re-arranging the workspace and developing a sequential layout of the anaesthetist’s tray. Drugs are now in pre-filled syringes where possible, instead of ampoules and colour coding has been introduced into labels, with barcodes giving a computer-auditory readout when swiped past before use.

It is, Dr Merry explains, an integrated drug administration and anaesthesia record system with built-in multiple defences. “We’ve tried to think, all the way through, how could this be done better? We’ve developed software that helps with the checks and balances and is both time saving as well as vastly more accurate than the human touch. The system provides a minute by minute print out of all drugs administered during an operation (and that could be up to 60 different ones)- a time-consuming process traditionally done by hand.

“We didn’t set out to make money out of the research, but we wanted to make medicine safer,” says Dr Merry. He says the company is now trialling the system in hospitals overseas.


For more information:

a. Dr Alan Merry, 025 984 961 b.. John Gibson, John Gibson, Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, 04 917 7863 Backgrounder Grants for Private Sector R&D

- This is the newest scheme run under the Technology New Zealand umbrella, launched in September 2000.

- Grants are targeted specifically to technologically aware SMEs (less than $50m turnover). The aim is to increase the level of private sector expenditure in R&D.

- Support of up to 33.3% of R&D investments, to a maximum of $100,000 is available for qualifying projects.

- Latest figures show that around $1.5m per month is being invested in private sector R&D projects by GPSRD.

- The scheme has invested nearly $12million in the R&D programmes of 201 companies, to the end of May 2001

- GPSRD is the first of the Technology New Zealand schemes to operate exclusively via the Internet, with initial registration through its website,


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