Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Yet another health IT "glitch", that warm, fuzzy euphemism for life-threatening malfunctions: Internet outage left doctors without records for hours

Up to 112,000, in fact.

Nobody seemed to be listening when I and other "Health IT iconoclasts" warned years ago of issues like this regarding the blind-faith abandonment of paper and lack of truly robust local computing redundancy. When you're a patient, especially one in extremis, you do NOT want this to happen:

Internet outage left doctors without records for hours
Huffington Post


For several hours last week, doctors at PIM Associates, a primary care practice in Philadelphia, couldn’t see patients' lab results or what medications they were taking.

Those digital records are stored in the cloud by a company called Practice Fusion, which makes software to help doctors track patients.

But Practice Fusion's service was disrupted over two days last week because its data center provider suffered an outage. That prevented many of the 112,000 health care providers who rely on the company's software from accessing patient records.

“If you’re in an office that's completely electronic and the system goes down, you're flying blind,” Kelly Gallagher, a medical assistant at PIM Associates, told HuffPost. “It could be potentially dangerous.”

Potentially?  I'd say dangerous, period.

The episode offered an example of the potential drawbacks of electronic health records. It also highlighted how technology glitches can have serious human consequences. In this case, some out-of-date Internet equipment created confusion for many doctors.

Injured or dead patients really don't care.   They just want their records available.  Paper seems not to suffer mass outages...

... the ability to view electronic health records online depends on the reliability of technology companies -- which can experience glitches and outages. Last August, an electronic health record system made by Epic Systems went dark for a day, preventing nurses and staff at clinics in Northern California from accessing patient information. Last March, an outage involving a digital health record system in Boulder, Colorado, made by Meditech prevented some people from scheduling surgeries, getting test results or making appointments, according to the Boulder Daily Camera.

I covered those stories on this blog, and many others accessible under the query link http://hcrenewal.blogspot.com/search/label/glitch.

Health care providers face similar risks as other industries that store data in the cloud, but the stakes for doctors are often higher. One New York doctor who uses Practice Fusion's software said the outage could have been "a disaster if you’re dealing with life and death situations."

 I think the stakes are the highest for the patients.

The doctor requested that his name not be used because he said he worried that Practice Fusion might further disrupt his service. “My whole practice is in their hands,” he added.

Physicians are now beholden to and supplicated to IT companies.   That is not a pleasant thought.

Practice Fusion said the outage affected about one-third of its users, but didn't compromise data security. The outage "was out of our and our data center partner’s control," a company spokesperson told HuffPost.

"We worked closely with our partner to minimize the outage’s impact to our broader user base,” the spokesperson said. “We are monitoring the situation closely with our data center partner to address any other issues that may arise.”

I urge anyone reading this, if they know of injuries that resulted, to contact me.  I will pass the information along to plaintiff trial lawyers.

Practice Fusion attributed the outage to what experts are calling a rare Internet "brownout." Internet traffic is carried by a series of routers and switches, but the Web is now becoming too big and complicated for some of the old equipment. Last week, for the first time, the number of pathways for carrying Internet traffic crossed the critical threshold of 512,000. Many old Internet routers and switches can’t remember that many pathways, creating disruptions or outages across some parts of the Internet where that equipment needs to be replaced.

Again, injured and dead patients don't care, some of whom were in extremis when these outages occurred.  In medicine, there is no room for miscalculation and excuses.  My message to IT companies is if you can't provide reliable service, for whatever reason, then get the hell out of the medical clinic.

... Jim Cowie, chief scientist at Dyn, a company that tracks network management, said such disruptions will only continue in the coming months as the Internet keeps growing and its aging equipment is not replaced.

“We’re going to see more of these small, localized outages wherever there are vulnerable pieces of equipment,” Cowie said.

Well, then, perhaps paper is needed.

... In a blog post, the company recommended that affected customers print out any patient records they need. 

They agree.

For doctors, some of whom have complained about converting to electronic records, the Internet outage last week gave them justification for still keeping old-fashioned paper records.

“Sobering not to have had access to my practice for the last two days. Thank god for paper charts,” Meenakshi Budhraja, a gastroenterologist in Little Rock, Arkansas, tweeted.

Health IT extremists who believe in the abolishment of paper need to heed case examples like this.

But they won't, and that's almost guaranteed, at least until a cybernetic Libby Zion case occurs.

-- SS


Anonymous said...

Welllll, at least the Chinese did not get the soc numbers!

Unfortunately, this crap is now the standard of care. Despicable.

Matthew Holt said...

I'm confused Scott---the casual reader might suspect that you want to abandon all electronic systems and go back to paper. Surely this is not your opinion. Because every time I suggest it is, you deny it.

But if you want all machines to be perfect and infallible before we use them, I think we'll be having a long wait.

Unknown said...

This article really got me thinking. What if one of my loved one was in a hospital and the network crashed? Have we really become so dependent on technology that we are willing to put our lives at stake? A scary thought with no solution in sight.