Saturday, January 14, 2012

North Bristol Hits Appointment Problems: Another "Our Lousy IT Systems Screwed Up, But Patient Safety Was Never Compromised" Story

At my Dec. 2011 post "IT Malpractice? Yet Another "Glitch" Affecting Thousands of Patients. Of Course, As Always, Patient Care Was "Not Compromised" referencing prior posts, I wrote:

... At my Nov. 2011 post "Lifespan (Rhode Island): Yet another health IT glitch affecting thousands - that, of course, caused no patient harm that they know of - yet" I wrote:

There's been yet another health IT "glitch" that, of course, caused no patients to be harmed. See other "glitches" here, here, here and at other posts which can be found by searching this blog on the banal term 'glitch'.

Another "our clinical IT crapped out , BUT ... patient care/safety was never compromised" story just arose:

North Bristol hits appointment problems
E-Health Insider
11 January 2012
Rebecca Todd

Clinicians working at North Bristol NHS Trust have expressed concern about disruption to patient care, which they say is caused by appointment problems following the go-live of a new Cerner Millennium electronic patient record system.

I would have entitled the article "North Bristol hit by IT-created appointment problems."

Reported problems include patients being booked into non-existent clinic appointments or not being told about scheduled operations, resulting in some operations being cancelled.

No patient care compromise possible there. Who, after all, needs a timely operation? It frees up a lot of money for IT golf tournaments to let those of no value to society (i.e., the old, and those who will not admit computers in healthcare with deterministically revolutionize medicine because, well, they're magic) simply die due to delayed or cancelled surgery...

Ehealth Insider understands that some of the problems relate to the way the trust configured the EPR system; including setting up dummy clinics for which appointment letters were subsequently sent out.

It's never the software or computer's fault.

As a matter of fact, I have not seen any official response to the work of Dr. Jon Patrick at U. Sydney on the many software engineering flaws of another product of the same company. His work is entitled "A study of an Enterprise Health information System" and is at this link: Do they have Class Action lawsuits in Australia?

In a regional BBC news report, aired on Monday evening, anonymous hospital clinicians called the implementation a “complete shambles” and said it represented a “potential danger” to patients.

According to the BBC report, the problems meant patients were being booked for impossible appointment times, such as 12.05 am, and quoted correspondence saying staff and the system were both on the “verge of meltdown."

The clinician comments are anonymous since non-anonymous reporting would get the clinicians declared health IT apostates, and then excommunicated. Non-anonymous 'whistleblowers' could also fear being sued due to possible gag clauses - the kind of clause hospital executives sign in violation of their fiduciary responsibilities to their staff and to patients. (See my 2009 JAMA letter to the editor "Health Care Information Technology, Hospital Responsibilities, and Joint Commission Standards"at this link and the much-expanded essay on the same themes "Health Care Information Technology Vendors' Hold Harmless and Keep Defects Secret Clauses" at this link.)

Martin Bell, director of IM&T at the trust, confirmed to EHI that North Bristol had experienced some “unexpected problems” in the past few weeks with some of the outpatient appointments and theatre lists.

Bell stressed, however, that patient safety had not been compromised and that this continued to be the top priority.

There's that line again. Perhaps it's part of some hospital administrator JournoList-recommended catchphrase for describing how safety was not compromised during a major workflow disruption?

He said the problems were not down to the software itself, but due to “implementation and data migration difficulties in some clinics."

Right. Quite credible.

“Our information management and technology team, supported by our suppliers BT and Cerner, have been working very hard to sort out any initial issues as quickly as possible and we are already seeing improvements,” he said.

Congratulations are due. They are seeing "improvements" in dangerous clinical IT malfunctions that should never have to have been seen in the first place, if the statement is true.

“Many wards, our two minor injuries units and the Emergency Department, are successfully using the new system." The trust is one of the largest in the South of England, with more than 1,000 beds.

Just give them time.

EHI understands that as part of the Millennium implementation, dummy clinics were set up. Patients were then sent appointment letters for these clinics in error.

EHI also understands that some patients had also not turned up for scheduled operations because they had not been informed about the booking.

Bell apologised to patients who had been “inconvenienced during this transition period” and said staff had shown real dedication to continue to deliver patient care.

What if someone had been inconvenienced into their grave, or ends up there as a result of delays? On what wavelength will the apology be transmitted?

“We firmly believe that the new system, once fully implemented, will improve services for our patients and provide real value,” he said.

That seems to be the mantra, but delivery on such promises are rare. See "Pessimism, Computer Failure, and Information Systems Development in the Public Sector" as here, Public Administration Review 67;5:917-929, Sept/Oct. 2007, Shaun Goldfinch, University of Otago, New Zealand. The article is a cautionary article on IT that should be read by every healthcare executive documenting the widespread nature of IT difficulties and failure, the lack of attention to the issues responsible, and recommending much more critical attitudes towards IT.

A £69m contract for BT to deliver Cerner Millennium to three new, or ‘greenfield’ sites in the South of England was agreed in April 2010, under the auspices of the National Programme for IT in the NHS.

That would not be the failed National Programme for IT in the NHS, the NPfIT what went PfffT, would it?

North Bristol was the last of these three sites to go-live with the system in December last year.

It followed Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust, which went live a week earlier, and Royal United Hospital Bath NHS Trust, which was the first to go-live in July.

Cerner said it was working closely with North Bristol and BT on the recent implementation of Millennium.

“In complex and large deployments, especially when migrating from two different systems, it is always anticipated that it would take time for the new system to bed-in,” it said in a statement.

The patients are given full informed consent on this issue, right? Right?

“Across much of the trust, the deployment has worked well. However, this is a major change management project and there have been some difficulties with outpatient appointments.

Although this is not a problem with the software, Cerner is working in partnership with BT and trust staff to resolve any issue as quickly as possible.”

Link: BBC News

Right. Perhaps this software and claim needs testing - in a court of law.

The only thing missing is the word "glitch", though I am including that term in this posting's index, since I consider it another story in the ever-growing health IT "glitch" series.

-- SS


A reader sent me this comment:

How can anyone claim the problems at N. Bristol are unexpected. they are EXACTLY the same problems encountered in Taunton five years ago.

The Somerset Trust had sixteen cancelled go live dates and when Cerner 'Millennium" (note: they never defined which Millennium...) was switched on the whole hospital went into slow-motion.

Appointments could not be made at out-patient reception desks while patients waited and therefore had to be posted on. Twenty-four whole time equivalent clerks had to be employed to manage the back-up of appointment requests. So much for enhanced efficiency and cost savings.

The only possible response to this news is again to remind people of Einstein's famous definition of insanity: "repeating the same thing again and again and expecting a different result."

As for other Trusts, why no news of transformed performance by Cerner's systems at other Cerner implemented sites, Berkshire, Newcastle, Kingston, Oxford etc. The only 'good' news we get is that the system has been switched on.

If any of this expensive activity had really produced data, efficiency or cost gains, we would be drowning in Cerner press releases, the silence can only mean one thing, that their system is performing as poorly at other sites as it has in the South West.

Contrast this with the output and data produced openly by Birmingham University Hospital from its in-house created IT system.

Unfortunately one can only draw one serious conclusion about the whole Cerner/ NHS debacle - to paraphrase Mr. Clinton - "It's the (imho substandard) software, stupid!

This story needs serious investigation ... Recently US news items have started to discount the supposed efficiency gains for e-Health implementations and started to emphasize data capture and patient safety as the imperative for switch on. Unfortunately for Cerner supporters (and other vendors) the US Institute of Medicine's recent report stated unequivocally that there was (to everyone's apparent surprise) no quality evidence that e-Health improved patient safety.

I would contend no drug, therapeutic equipment or operation would or could be implemented in secondary care in the absence of critical and peer reviewed evidence of benefit [emphasis mine - ed.] that has characterized the rush to switch-on substandard IT solutions in English NHS hospitals.

I note that critical, peer-reviewed evidence, especially based on prospective randomized clinical trials as opposed to anecdotal, weak retrospective observational studies, have been deemed unnecessary in health IT.

Yet serious case reports of risk and injury from credible sources are deemed the true "anecdotes" and discounted. As I've written before, the science of medicine is nearly entirely lacking in the domain of health IT.

To put it in the words of James Le Fanu (channeling Sherlock Holmes) in his very apropos essay entitled "The Case of the Missing Data: The Dog That Didn't Bark", details on contrary strands of evidence that could reasonably have been expected to appear in evidential text are absent.

-- SS


  1. Scandalous. The company, Cerner, should be investigated for criminal conduct. Follow the money.

  2. I like the section where the Trust describes "teething problems". These devices have fangs, actually, that grip and kill patients, whimsically from time to time. And the FDA has done NOTHING in the USA.

  3. It was David Blumenthal, MD, when he was ONC Chief, who openly depreciated the adverse event reports as being anecdotes as a cover for the failings of ONCHIOT and HHS to protect the patients from the dangers of HIT.

    He has an anecdote of his own that was subject of a medical malpractice suit involving HIT. Let's hear about it, Dr. BlumenTALE.

  4. Anonymous January 15, 2012 12:05:00 AM EST writes:

    I like the section where the Trust describes "teething problems".

    Another codeword.

    I addressed the use of health IT "teething problems" at my Aug. 2010 post "Cerner's Blitzkrieg on London: Where's the RAF?" at

    In that post I reference the Aug. 2011 eHealth Insider story "St George’s suffers Cerner teething pain" and observe:

    "Teething" problems? As if to imply problems with health IT are as minor as an infant's dental discomfort? That's some spin:

    [Picture of baby who's crying from teething pain]

    Health IT problems? Just baby issues; nothing a good cry can't solve ...

    (The health IT baby must have serious endocrinological problems. Even after decades, it never seems to grow up, and is forever teething.)

    The spin and excuses surrounding the health IT industry are simply nauseating, considering it's people's lives that are being tampered with and put at risk.

    Let's translate to everyday language: the project has been a disaster.

    I stand by that assessment of "teething problems."

    -- SS

  5. Anonymous January 15, 2012 9:48:00 AM EST writes:

    He has an anecdote of his own that was subject of a medical malpractice suit involving HIT.

    I have no knowledge of that but doubt any statement will be made.

    On the other hand, Blumenthal had a job to do.

    His job was to suck up to the administration. (Even though that task is nowhere to be found in the Hippocratic Oath.)

    He did a good job of sucking, as I wrote about at my post "Science or Politics? The New England Journal and "The 'Meaningful Use' Regulation for Electronic Health Records" at and others.

    -- SS

  6. Not a peep from the UPMC Cerner implementations in the UK, why?