HHS OIG Says Unplanned Hospital EMR Outages Are Fairly Common

More than half of U.S. hospitals responding to a new survey reported having unplanned EMR outages, according to a new report issued by the HHS Office of the Inspector General, due to a variety of common but difficult-to-predict technical problems. Some of these outages have merely been inconveniences, but some resulted in patient care problems, the OIG report said.

The agency said that it conducted this study as a follow up to its prior research, which found that both natural disasters and cyberattacks were having a major impact on EMR availability. For example, it noted, hospitals faced substantial health IT availability challenges in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, include damage to HIT systems and problems with access to patient records.

According to the survey, 59% of the hospitals reported having unplanned EMR outages. One-quarter said that the outages created delays in patient care and 15% said that the outage lead to rerouted patient care. Only 1 percent of outages were caused by hacking or breaches.

The most common causes, in order, were topped by hardware malfunctions, followed by Internet connectivity problems, power failures and natural disasters. (For more detail on the root causes of outages, see this great post by my colleague John Lynn.)

It’s worth noting that these hospitals were selected for having their act together to some degree. To conduct the study, researchers spoke with 400 hospitals which were getting Meaningful Use incentive payments for using a certified EMR system in place as of September 2014.

Nearly all of these hospitals reported having a HIPAA-required EMR contingency plan in place. Also, two thirds of the hospitals addressed the four HIPAA requirements reviewed by OIG researchers. Eighty-three percent of surveyed hospitals reported having a data backup plan, 95% had an emergency mode operations mode plan, 95% said they had a disaster recovery plan and 73% said they had testing and revision procedures in place.

Not only that, most of the hospitals contacted by the study were implementing many ONC and NIST-recommended practices for creating EMR contingency plans. Nearly all had implemented practices such as using paper records for backup and putting alternative power sources like generators in place.

Also, most hospitals said that they reviewed their EMR contingency plans regularly to stay current with system or organizational changes, and 88% said they’d reviewed such plans within the previous two years. Most responding hospitals said they regularly trained their staff on EMR outage contingency plans, though just 45% reported training staff through recommended drills on how to address EMR system downtime. And 40% of hospitals that activated contingency plans in the wake of an outage reported that they saw no disruption to patient care or adverse events.

Still, the OIG’s take on this data is that it’s time to better monitor hospitals’ ability to address EMR outages. Now more than ever, the agency would like to see the HHS Office for Civil Rights fully implement a permanent HIPAA compliance program, particularly given the mounting level of cyberattacks endured by the industry. The OIG admitted that HIPAA standards aren’t crafted specifically to address these types of outages, so it’s not clear such monitoring can solve the problem, but the agency would prefer to forge ahead with existing standards given the risks that are emerging.

About the author

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.