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Computer system expected to go down temporarily at Spokane VA hospital due to weekend construction

UPDATED: Fri., May 27, 2022

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

WASHINGTON – The computer system used by health care workers at Spokane’s VA medical center is expected to go offline during construction this weekend, but Department of Veterans Affairs officials said Friday the planned outage would not impact the care veterans receive at the hospital.

Since October 2020, Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane and its associated clinics across the Inland Northwest have been the pilot sites for the electronic health record system providers rely on to keep track of patient data and coordinate care. The system, developed by Kansas City-based Cerner Corp. under a $10 billion contract to replace VA’s existing system, has caused a wide range of problems, but Mann-Grandstaff director Robert Fischer said this weekend’s planned downtime is not part of that pattern.

“We expect this event to have no impact on patient care,” Fischer said in a press release, explaining that the downtime is part of ongoing work to upgrade the facility’s heating, ventilation, air conditioning and power for the server rooms required to run the new system.

The system’s launch, originally planned for early 2020, was delayed in part because Mann-Grandstaff lacked the basic computer equipment and infrastructure needed to make it work. In one case, a server was covered with a tarp to prevent a water leak from damaging it.

The system is expected to be down from 5 p.m. Saturday until 5 a.m. Sunday, according to VA, while workers relocate computer equipment within the hospital. When the computer system is down, health care providers will document patient information with pen and paper and enter it into the system once it is back online.

Employees at the VA hospitals in Spokane and Walla Walla and their associated clinics in the Inland Northwest have become familiar with that process, known as “downtime procedures,” during the more than 50 incidents in which the system has been partly or completely unusable over the past year and a half. In a briefing with reporters Wednesday, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said he felt “intense frustration” about the outages.

The Friday press release marked a more proactive approach from VA, which has often scrambled to explain outages and other problems with the Cerner system after they have occurred.

During the planned downtime this weekend, according to VA, pharmacy services won’t be available but staff will still be able to provide medications to patients staying at the hospital overnight. Many of Mann-Grandstaff’s departments are closed on Saturday evenings, when the work will take place to minimize the impact on veterans.

“VA and Cerner will be monitoring the (electronic health record) system this weekend at Mann-Grandstaff to ensure there is no disruption to patient care,” Terry Adirim, the top VA official in charge of rolling out the Cerner system, said in the press release. “Historical patient information within the EHR system will not be affected by this ongoing construction project. Medical personnel at Mann-Grandstaff will be notified when work is completed and all systems are back online.”

After launching the Cerner system at sites in central Ohio on April 30, VA plans to roll it out next at facilities in Roseburg and White City, Oregon, on June 11, followed by Boise on June 25. The system’s biggest test will come when it launches in Seattle and at other sites around Puget Sound, currently scheduled for Aug. 27.

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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