Physicians and other healthcare professionals often prescribe drugs that will only work at certain concentrations. These drugs are said to have a narrow therapeutic window. This means that if the concentration of the drug is too high or too low, they may cause serious side effects or not provide the benefits they should. For example, blood thinners (anticoagulants) are prescribed to thin the blood to prevent clots. If the concentration is too high, people may experience excessive bleeding and even death. In contrast, if the concentration is too low, a clot could form and cause a stroke. For these types of drugs, it is important that the correct amount of the drug be prescribed.
Calculating and prescribing the correct amount can be complicated and time-consuming for healthcare professionals. Sometimes determining the correct dose can take a long time since healthcare professionals may not want to prescribe high doses of the drugs initially because they make mistakes in calculations. Several computer systems have been designed to do these calculations and assist healthcare professionals in prescribing these types of drugs.
We sought clinical trial evidence from scientific databases to evaluate the effectiveness of these computer systems. The evidence is current to January 2012. We found data from 42 trials (40 randomized controlled trials (trials that allocate people at random to receive one of a number of drugs or procedures) and two non-randomized controlled trials).
Computerized advice for drug dosage can benefit people taking certain drugs compared with empiric dosing (where a dose is chosen based on a doctor's observations and experience) without computer assistance. When using the computer system, healthcare professionals prescribed appropriately higher doses of the drugs initially for aminoglycoside antibiotics and the correct drug dose was reached more quickly for oral anticoagulants. It significantly decreased thromboembolism (blood clotting) events for anticoagulants and tended to reduce unwanted effects for aminoglycoside antibiotics and anti-rejection drugs (although not an important difference). It tended to reduce the length of hospital stay compared with routine care with comparable or better cost-effectiveness. There was no evidence of effects on death or clinical side events for insulin (low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia)), anaesthetic agents, anti-rejection drugs (drugs taken to prevent rejection of a transplanted organ) and antidepressants.
Quality of evidence
The quality of the studies was low so these results must be interpreted with caution.