When a remote data storage location lost its power for about five hours several weeks ago, dozens of hospitals lost their access to critical electronic health information.
The faux pas comes at a time when the federal government is pushing for the widespread adoption of electronic health records (EHRs) in an effort to streamline medical functions. Critics charge that implementation has been difficult and that software designs are flawed.
The trouble on July 23 at Kansas City's Cerner Corp., caused by "human error," indicates how EMRs might lead to more medical error rather than less. Hospitals depend on EMRs for "recording patient notes, ordering medical tests and drugs, and communicating with one another about lab results and changes in a patient's condition."
Last December, Cerner also experienced a 14 hour outage, which affected the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, but the Center had a backup system in place. No harm no foul.
This recent outage, however, was not so lucky, and the affected hospitals had to scramble for "downtime procedures," which ensure patient safety. Medical personnel would write notes by hand, for example, but they often had to operate without vital information. Cerner's lack of backup appears to violate federal law, which requires contingency plans.
There were not, however, any reported cases of related patient harm, although an obstetrics unit was reported to have lost access to fetal heart monitors for mothers.
At the request of the US Health and Human Services, the Institute of Medicine recommended last year the initiation of an independent watchdog for these kinds of hazards. Now Cerner is looking into additional precautions.