The Irish Times has recently reported that the cyber attack in May 2021 on the Health Service Executive (HSE) is going to have an impact on the health of some patients.
Delayed diagnosis according to one GP is the worry. Symptoms or results which GPs would have picked up on normally may be impaired and they may not be able to now diagnose accordingly. GPs see people every day with symptoms that concern them and require looking into. Some of the time it is nothing serious. But a number will be serious. This is the problem. Delays at investigation and prognosis stages may impact the health of patients.
The cyber-crime group’s ransomware hack in the early hours of 14th May 2021 froze Ireland’s almost 3,500 family doctors out of vital systems they rely on daily for ordering diagnostic tests, receiving results and communicating with the HSE. Blood tests, X-rays and imaging results all just stopped. GPs and hospital laboratory medics were catapulted back 40 years, having to arduously handwrite everything and able only to cope with the most urgent cases. Many surgeries just cancelled tests altogether, such was the uncertainty. Fears of contagion from the HSE hack left GPs reluctant to even access their own laptops and desktops containing patient records.
While most of the systems are back up and running now, IT group restrictions remain. Only certain types of blood tests can be requested, and there are limitations on X-ray availability, with huge variations becoming common in different hospital groups around the country.
In a circular to family doctors recently, HSE chief clinical officer Dr Colm Henry said diagnostic laboratory backlogs had “improved significantly” in the east, while those in the northwest, west and southwest were still “significantly constrained”. Even where “critical” systems were back up and running, Dr Henry admitted there was “limited access” to testing, forcing GPs to “carry additional clinical risk”, which adds “significantly” to “challenges and stresses”.
Rob Landers, a University Hospital Waterford pathologist heavily involved in cancer diagnostics, said that when the cyber attack happened it completely crippled them. It was like being asked to drive a motor car without seatbelts, without airbags. Therefore, if anything went wrong there was no protection. All of the systems have double, triple, quadruple checks to make sure it is the right diagnosis for the right patient. If doctors get that wrong, it is catastrophic.
Initially, the seriousness and impact of this did not seem to be recognised. It was not being admitted to by senior HSE management and the Department of Health. It took a while for them to acknowledge the level of risk.
It is reported that it will be September or October before the diagnostics backlog is worked through. The big worry is delayed diagnosis in the meantime. It is a real, significant risk. If diagnostics are delayed, the whole process is delayed – delays in getting to surgery, delays getting radiotherapy, chemotherapy.
It is further reported that a backlog created by the cyberattack, on top of a “pent-up demand” as Covid-19 restrictions ease, is hitting poorer patients most.
Every week of delay from here on in is increasingly concerning.
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