The Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Spokane, Washington, suspended patient admissions and most outpatient appointments Thursday after the facility's electronic health records system was found to be corrupted.
Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center Director Robert Fischer sent an email Thursday morning to staff ordering them to stop using the digital records system "until further notice" and assume that "all electronic patient data is corrupted/inaccurate."
According to the email, the hospital stopped taking new admissions and clinics were instructed to see patients and offer only services medical staff was "comfortable providing assuming all electronic sources of data are unreliable."
The facility's chief of surgery also was assessing whether operations could continue safely.
"This current downtime in [sic] unlike previous episodes insofar that all data residing in [the systems] may be corrupted," Fischer wrote in the email, obtained by Military.com.
A staff member said the issue stemmed from a systems update Wednesday evening at the VA's West Consolidated Patient Account Center in Las Vegas.
While the problem appeared to be fixed by Friday morning, most appointments and procedures for the day had already been suspended, said the employee, who requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak with the media.
"They pretty much suspended anything that has to do with patient records because it was a patient safety issue," the employee said.
The medical center referred all questions to the VA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., which didn’t respond by publication.
The episode marks another chapter in the troubled rollout of the VA's $16 billion electronic health system, developed by Missouri-based Cerner Corp.
The VA launched the platform at Mann-Grandstaff, its pilot site, in November 2020 following two months-long delays to address the department's information technology infrastructure and training and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Just six months after its introduction, the VA then undertook a "strategic review" of the system following complaints from providers and patients that the platform was not user-friendly and did not improve data sharing, management and workflow capabilities.
"[It has never worked correctly] from the inception," the employee said during an interview Friday. "The rollout was poor, the training was poor. ... The people who brought it on board actually never seemed to consult with the people who use it, a communication gap that I don't think is uncommon."
Adoption of an electronic health records system compatible with the Department of Defense's medical records system has been decades in the making, with the VA and DoD under a congressional requirement since at least 2008 to make their systems interoperable.
The VA awarded the contract worth up to $16 billion in May 2018 to Cerner, which also developed the Defense Department's MHS Genesis electronic health records system.
The DoD is currently rolling out the Cerner electronic medical records system across its health facilities with a goal to complete deployment by 2023. Few issues have been reported with that system, which also is used by the U.S. Coast Guard.
But the VA continues to face problems with deployment of its system, now called Cerner Millennium.
VA officials announced in December that the department was replacing the leadership team over the project and would increase training ahead of expanded use beginning in 2024.
The next facility slated to receive the system is in Columbus, Ohio, with rollout expected this month, followed by the VA medical center in Walla Walla, Washington.
According to a schedule released by the VA in December, 12 VA medical centers were to receive the system by the end of this year and 21 more by the end of 2023, with a goal to have it operational at all sites in 2028.
Cerner did not respond to a request for comment by publication. Brian Sandager, the company's manager for government services, told the Spokesman-Review that the company is working to address the problem.
"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 told the paper, which first reported the problem. "We are working hand-in-hand with our VA partner to address any and all concerns."