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UK hospitals fall back on pen and paper after Oracle Cerner outage

Staff couldn't access patient records and paper stocks were running low

Hospitals in the UK are recovering from an outage in their vital electronic health records system from Oracle Cerner which left doctors unable to access vital patient information.

Yesterday afternoon, Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust staff were told not to use the electronic patient record system due to a technical issue affecting Cerner.

An internal communication said that Royal Free Hospital, Chase Farm Hospital, and Barnet Hospital – all part of the trust – were reverting to "downtime" procedures, including using paper. Although some users had intermittent access to the patient record system, they were advised to continue using the downtime process.

The Register has seen screenshots of alerts saying the incident was unplanned and caused the application to run slowly and crash. Another error message said the problem was an "invalid database configuration" and that the "configuration file could not be found."

By 9am on October 12, the problem had been fixed, another internal communication said. The trust has been contacted for comment.

According to the Health Service Journal, a similar issue affected Barts Health NHS Trust, which also uses the Cerner Millennium system. It was unable to access patient records or write discharge summaries. One clinician said the outage was "overwhelmingly unsafe" for patients.

In an intriguing twist, a shortage of paper was said to be exacerbating the outage at the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust. Users questioned what would happen if the trust ran out during the downtime procedure and pointed out that the trust had been running a campaign for users to "go paperless" using an appointment booking portal.

The outage follows a summer meltdown at Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust, when unprecedented temperatures caused server failures and an outage of the hospitals' patient records systems, causing clinical disruption. The trust is believed to be moving over to the Epic health records system, a rival to Cerner.

In the US, errors following the go-live of a new Oracle Cerner system risked the safety of 150 patients at a Washington hospital, a Senate hearing heard in July. Four days after Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane switched over to its new Cerner software, staff became aware of an "unknown queue" problem which had the potential to harm patients.

At the hearing, Mike Sicilia, executive vice president at Oracle, said Cerner and the hospital had implemented system changes to address the issues. He promised further improvements without letting "contract wrangling get in the way."

Oracle acquired Cerner for $28.3 billion in June.

We have asked Oracle to comment but it has yet to reply. ®

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