Two of the UK’s leading hospitals have had to cancel operations, postpone appointments and divert seriously ill patients to other centres for the past three weeks after their computers crashed at the height of last month’s heatwave.
The IT breakdowns at Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals in London have caused misery for doctors and patients and have also raised fears about the impact of climate change on data centres that store medical, financial and public sector information.
The head of Guy’s and St Thomas’ trust, Professor Ian Abbs, has issued “a heartfelt apology” for the breakdown, which he admitted was “extremely serious”. He was speaking nine days after the hospitals’ computers crashed, on 19 July, as a direct result of the record-breaking heat.
Core IT systems had been restored by the end of last week but work was still going on to recover data and reboot other systems. “The complexity of our current IT systems has made them difficult to recover,” said a spokesman for the trust.
Without access to electronic records, doctors have not been able to tell how patients were reacting to their treatments. “We were flying blind,” said one senior doctor at St Thomas’. “Getting results back from the labs was an absolute nightmare and involved porters carrying bits of paper to and from the lab.
“However, people often did not specify where a patient was in the hospital. So there were groups of porters and lab staff wandering around the hospital looking blindly for a random patient. It was chaos,” he added.
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The loss of digital records also meant data checks that normally help limit mistakes were absent. “Without a doubt, patient safety was compromised,” he said.
On 25 July, the trust was forced to ask other NHS services not to send any non-urgent requests for blood tests or X-rays or other imaging scans.
Digital care records for patients have not been updated since 19 July. Cancer patients reported having chemotherapy cancelled at short notice, and others were unable to contact the hospital at all.
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Warnings that the two hospitals’ IT systems were not operating at optimum levels were made last year when the trust’s board was told that several systems, including Windows 10, were out of support, and the infrastructure had reached the end of its life.
Minutes for a board meeting on 21 November also noted that work had taken place over the previous six months to try to mitigate these security risks by making tactical fixes to the most vulnerable areas.
Professor George Zervas, of University College London’s department of electronic and electrical engineering, said: “Computers are now vital to healthcare, with artificial intelligence being explored or used to support various tasks like prognosis. For example, AI can use medical imaging scans to diagnose cancer. That means that the appetite for computing, communicating, storing and retrieving data is going up all the time.
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“At the same time, global temperatures are going up, and that means that power and cooling systems have to be a lot more effective and resilient.”
However, the constant growth of data centres also means that they are playing a part in the heating of the planet. “By 2030, it is predicted that data centres across the globe will consume the same amount of power as the whole of Europe does today – which is massive,” added Zervas.
Providing the extra power to run the data centres in coming decades will therefore place further strains on the world’s ability to limit carbon emissions. “We need to find ways to compute, store and communicate more data with significantly less power consumption than we do at present,” said Zervas.
“We need to develop energy efficient and highly performing networks and systems that are also more resilient, otherwise we will face problems of major IT system limitations and potential failures in the future.”