Skip to the content

Hospitals acknowledge risk to patients from IT problems



Doctor using laptop with floating screen showing large tick
Image source: best photo for all

IT system failures have caused repeated problems, and even been linked to a handful of patient deaths, at NHS hospitals in England, according to a report by the BBC.

It said that a freedom of information request sent to all acute hospital trusts in the country, of which 116 responded, identified a series of problems with electronic patient record (EPR) systems.

The worst was that three deaths in two trusts had been related to EPR problems.

Others were that 89 trusts had logged instances when patients could be harmed due to problems with EPRs, almost half recorded instances of potential patient harm linked to systems, nearly 60 reported IT problems that could affect patient care and there were 126 instances across 31 trusts of serious harm linked to IT issues.

In addition, more than 200,000 letters across 21 trusts were not sent due to IT problems.

Series of errors

The BBC said that a number of clinicians also anonymously highlighted problems such as medication errors, incorrect patient details on operating theatre lists and that it can be hard to find critical information.

This follows a warning early in the year from the Health Services Safety Investigation Body (HSSIB), an arm’s length body of the Department of Health and Social Care, that patient safety was placed at risk by problems in exchanging information between EPRs and other healthcare IT systems.

It made recommendations to improve the use of EPR systems, including that they are subject to human factors and usability assessments, and there should be research into how they are best configured to prevent ‘alert fatigue’ among staff.

GPs 'deeply concerned'

The new revelations prompted the Royal College of GPs to express alarm. Its chair, Professor Kamila Hawthorne, said: "GPs will be deeply concerned by the scale of the issue revealed here, especially when a significant number of trusts are reporting incidents of potential harm as a result. The health and wellbeing of our patients is our number one priority, and it is distressing to think their care is being undermined by issues with IT infrastructure.

"When letters being sent to patients and GPs from hospitals are lost, it could mean that a patient doesn’t attend a vital hospital appointment. In some instances, the loss of a letter will have a more serious impact than others, but in this day and age no patient should be in danger of having their care jeopardised due to issues with administrative and IT systems.

“Nor should already overstretched GP teams be left to chase up letters patients haven’t received – although at least in the cases we know about, we can intervene, it is the cases we don't know about and therefore can’t follow up that are most concerning. 

"None of this is the fault of our colleagues in secondary care who, like us, are working under extraordinary pressures. These issues are problems within the IT infrastructure being used.

“We need urgent and careful action to identify the issue and address it, to ensure that none of our patients slip through the gaps, and are communicated with so they receive the care they need."

NHS England response

NHS England has been quoted by the BBC report with a report saying that EPRs improve patient safety.

Its national director for medical transformation, Professor Erika Denton, said: “The NHS has invested nearly £900m over the past two years to help local organisations introduce new and improved systems, so they are no longer relying on paper records or patchwork systems – which carry far greater risks to safety, care delays, and patient privacy.

“However, like any system, it’s essential that they are introduced and operated to high standards, and NHS England is working closely with trusts to review any concerns raised and provide additional support and guidance on the safe use of their systems where required.”

Over recent months NHS England has claimed a success in meeting the Government’s target of 90% of hospital trusts adopting EPRs, and it has published a procurement notice as part of the creation of ‘tiger teams’ to support deployments.



Register For Alerts

Keep informed - Get the latest news about the use of technology, digital & data for the public good in your inbox from UKAuthority.