Study predicts injury increase for medical professionals

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High tech will mean high-risk for some healthcare workers, according to projections from a Cornell University ergonomics professor. The push to make healthcare high tech, which is being pumped with $20 billion from the federal stimulus package, will create some of its own healthcare claims, he says.

Electronic medical records and related systems are likely to boost musculoskeletal injuries among doctors and nurses, says Cornell expert Alan Hedge. A poor office footprint and incorrect use of computer devices will bring on repetitive strain injuries, he warns.

"Many hospitals are investing heavily in new technology with almost no consideration for principles of ergonomics design for computer workplaces," said Hedge, professor of human factors and ergonomics in Cornell's College of Human Ecology's Department of Design and Environmental Analysis. "We saw a similar pattern starting in the 1980s when commercial workplaces computerized, and there was an explosion of musculoskeletal injuries for more than a decade afterward."

Hedge surveyed medical professionals at Duke University clinics along with co-author Tamara James, an ergonomist at the Duke University Medical Center. Information from 179 physicians showed many reports of repetitive strain injuries in the neck, shoulder and upper and lower back pain. A majority of female doctors and more than 40% of male doctors said they felt the ailments on at least a weekly basis.

"We can't assume that just because people are doctors or work in healthcare that they know about ergonomics," Hedge said. "With so many potential negative effects for doctors and patients, it is critical that the implementation of new technology is considered from a design and ergonomics perspective."

About 40% of women and 30% of men reported right wrist (presumably “mouse wrist”) injuries at a similar frequency. Women appeared to be affected more because they spent an hour longer on the computer per day than men.

A second study of 180 physicians and 63 nurse practitioners and physician assistants in the same health system showed more than 90% of respondents used a desktop computer at work. On average, the total time per day was more than five hours.

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