System crash an 'opportunity'

Hank Wolfe.
Hank Wolfe.
This week's failure of the Southern District Health Board's computer system is ''an opportunity disguised as a disaster'', which the whole New Zealand health system can learn from, Associate Prof Hank Wolfe says.

Prof Wolfe, of the University of Otago information science department, has been a computer professional for more than 50 years and specialises in computer security and privacy issues.

He emphasised he was not blaming anyone for the lengthy outage involving the DHB's IT system, which contains patient records and gives staff access to emails.

The outage came after it was revealed last week that more than 3800 Southland Hospital mammograms had been lost because of an IT failure.

Dunedin North MP and Labour associate health spokesman David Clark said on Monday the DHB had an ''ageing IT infrastructure'', which reflected cost-cutting across the sector because of Government funding pressures.

Southern DHB officials have since denied that the system was ageing, and said much had been invested in terms of having the appropriate equipment and it being upgraded.

Prof Wolfe acknowledged there was a trend for previous paper-based record systems to be replaced by electronic records at the SDHB and elsewhere.

Provided there was a robust system of ''redundancy'' to ensure there was an immediately accessible IT backup system, switching to electronic systems was positive.

But increasing the number of eggs in the electronic ''basket'' meant potentially increased vulnerability and highlighted the need for strong IT backup.

Prof Wolfe said it would be wrong to blame the SDHB for what had happened.

Similar problems could have occurred at any of New Zealand's 20 DHBs, and all could learn from what had happened, he said.

''This is an opportunity to face the problem - not to blame Dunedin [and the SDHB].''

Given the growing importance of computerised record-keeping, the Government should ultimately take responsibility for fully funding the DHB IT system.

And a national DHB IT system, with appropriate backup support, should ultimately be developed, through collaboration among the DHBs.

It was ''unacceptable'' for medical staff at any DHB to face a situation in future where urgent medical intervention was needed to save the life of an unconscious patient, but where the relevant electronic or paper records were not available to advise whether the patient had, for example, an antibiotic allergy, he said.

Prof Robin Gauld, the director of the University of Otago Centre for Health Systems, said although New Zealand's 20 DHBs had a variety of IT systems, there was an ''evolutionary'' trend towards a more shared approach to meeting IT needs.

There were moves among DHBs in the South Island to work towards increased collaboration and improved data storage arrangements, as well as parallel moves in the North Island.

And there was a case to develop the kind of single-buyer approach for DHB IT equipment that had been adopted by government drug-buying agency Pharmac, Prof Gauld said.

Such a more nationwide approach to DHB IT issues could cut costs and enable DHB record systems to communicate more effectively with each other.

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