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Computer problems slow Spokane VA after Defense Department update to electronic health record system

Jan. 24, 2023 Updated Tue., Jan. 24, 2023 at 8:43 p.m.

A plaque outside the headquarters of the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C.  (Orion Donovan-Smith, The Spokesman-Review)
A plaque outside the headquarters of the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C. (Orion Donovan-Smith, The Spokesman-Review)

WASHINGTON – Spokane’s VA hospital and other medical facilities across the country suffered a major slowdown Monday and part of Tuesday after an update to a troubled electronic health record system caused a “performance degradation,” the Department of Veterans Affairs said Tuesday.

Employees at Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center alerted The Spokesman-Review to the problem. VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes confirmed changes made to the system by the Department of Defense, which shares a database with the VA, “had the unintended consequence of interrupting services that provide connectivity to the network.”

As a result, Hayes said in a statement, each time users clicked a button in the system, they had to wait “long intervals” for the next screen. That further slowed a system whose clunky design has reduced the number of patients the Spokane hospital can serve and left employees exhausted.

Hayes confirmed the slowdown affected every medical facility using the system, including more than half of all Military Health System providers, as well as VA clinics and hospitals in Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Ohio. As of Tuesday afternoon, “configuration changes” had been made to resolve the issue, he said, adding the VA would “continue to monitor the system and user feedback to confirm the lag is fixed.”

In an internal chat, Mann-Grandstaff employees expressed frustration with the slowdown and said they had to work extra hours Monday to care for patients and document their treatment in the system, which health care workers rely on to coordinate work and reduce the risk of errors.

Since October 2020, the Spokane hospital and its affiliated clinics across the Inland Northwest have been the testing ground for an effort to replace the VA’s electronic health record system with the new system. It was developed by Cerner – a division of the tech giant Oracle – under a $10 billion contract the Trump administration signed in 2018.

In an email, Hayes said the VA was working with Oracle and the Department of Defense to resolve the issue. He emphasized that despite the slowness, the system was not “down.”

Data published by FedScoop in August revealed nearly 500 incidents when the system was partly or completely unusable between Sept. 8, 2020, and June 10, 2022.

In a statement, Oracle’s vice president of corporate communications, Michael Egbert, said the company was aware of the slowdown but added the problem was “not related to the Oracle-operated parts of the system.”

In a report presented to VA leaders in November and obtained by The Spokesman-Review, KLAS Research, a health care technology research firm, found the VA’s Oracle Cerner system ranked lower than every other electronic health record system in 280 organizations the firm had surveyed. Just 4% of users said the new VA system “enables quality care,” while 69% said the same of the VA’s existing system, known as VistA.

In response to problems at Mann-Grandstaff and other test sites, VA leaders have postponed the Oracle Cerner system’s launch at other clinics and hospitals, including those in Western Washington and Boise. The system’s next launch is scheduled for July 22 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The facility there is a larger and more complex hospital than those where the system has been deployed: including Spokane; Walla Walla; White City and Roseburg, Oregon; and Columbus, Ohio.

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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