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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane VA hospital grinds to a halt after computer system corrupts patient data

Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center is pictured.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Work ground to a halt at Spokane’s Veterans Affairs hospital Thursday after an update to a troubled computer system left patient data corrupted and unusable, according to patients and internal emails.

In an email sent Thursday morning and obtained by The Spokesman-Review, Robert Fischer, director of the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center, told employees to stop using the electronic health record system they rely on to coordinate health care and “Assume all electronic patient data is corrupted/inaccurate.”

Services would continue for patients already admitted to the hospital, he wrote, but no new patients would be admitted “until further notice” and the hospital’s chief of surgery would make an assessment about the safety of continuing surgeries.

Fischer directed staff to use “downtime procedures,” which involve writing patients’ information by hand and entering it into the system when it comes back online. A Spokesman-Review investigation in December found the system has seen multiple outages since it was launched in October 2020 at Mann-Grandstaff, but Fischer wrote Thursday’s downtime was “unlike previous episodes insofar as all data” in multiple software programs “may be corrupted.”

Problems with the system, developed by Missouri-based Cerner Corp. under a $10 billion contract, have delayed care, threatened patient safety and left VA employees exhausted and demoralized at the Spokane hospital and its outpatient clinics in Coeur d’Alene, Sandpoint, Wenatchee and Libby, Montana.

The rest of VA’s 171 hospitals and more than 1,100 clinics still use a different health record system that employees say works better, but the department has not reverted Mann-Grandstaff to the older system, opting instead to collect “lessons learned” in the Inland Northwest to help other parts of the country avoid similar problems.

In his email, Fischer told employees they should “provide only those healthcare services you are comfortable providing assuming all electronic sources of data are unreliable.”

“It is understood healthcare delivery, until these problems are rectified, will be very limited,” the email continued. “Empathy and an apologetic approach to patients will be very important.”

The director noted that many patients would need their appointments rescheduled, but he also wrote that employees may not have access to schedules in the system.

Health care workers should “make every effort to limit” ordering medications, laboratory tests and imaging studies such as X-rays, Fischer wrote. All mailings, including prescriptions sent to veterans by mail, were also suspended.

Joe Harmer, a 76-year-old Army veteran who lives in Greenacres, said he called Mann-Grandstaff on Thursday for help with his prescriptions and was told, “No prescriptions can be filled today.”

“They’re not able to pull up our records,” Harmer said. “The computers are completely down. They don’t know when they’ll be back up.”

Jason Ernsting, a Navy veteran who lives in Nine Mile Falls, said he called the medical center to talk with his doctor and was told by another employee they could not help him because the system had been down all day.

“Because they cannot pull up any medical records everyone cannot reach anyone,” Ernsting, 53, said in a text message. “This is truly unacceptable.”

VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes confirmed in an email that the electronic health record system at Mann-Grandstaff and its associated outpatient clinics, as well as a VA facility in Las Vegas that manages patient accounts, “experienced a service outage March 3, 2022, due to an issue with patient demographic data.”

“In an abundance of caution, the EHR (electronic health record) system was taken offline to prevent any impact to patient care areas,” Hayes wrote. “VA’s health care teams were notified and are following standard downtime procedures until the issue is corrected.”

In a separate email obtained by The Spokesman-Review, a supervisor at Mann-Grandstaff told employees not to use the system Thursday or Friday and to expect an update by the end of the week. Until the system is restored, the supervisor wrote, employees would need to write down veterans’ information by hand.

Brian Sandager, general manager of Cerner Government Services, said the company is working to address the problem. The VA awarded the $10 billion contract to Cerner in 2018 without considering bids from other companies, on the grounds that the software would work more effectively with a similar system Cerner had developed for the Defense Department.

“Cerner remains steadfast in its support of VA efforts to provide timely, high-quality care to Veterans through a modern, interoperable electronic health record,” Sandager said. “We are working hand-in-hand with our VA partner to address any and all concerns.”

In January, VA delayed the launch of the Cerner system at the next planned site in Columbus, Ohio – originally scheduled for March 5 – due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but so far the department has not pushed back the system’s planned March 26 rollout at the VA hospital in Walla Walla. The next sites on VA’s tentative schedule are Roseburg and White City, Oregon, on June 11; Boise on June 25; Anchorage, Alaska, on July 16; and several facilities in the Puget Sound region Aug. 27.

Spokesman-Review reporter Arielle Dreher contributed to this story.