Cerner outage raises new fears of cloud-based EHRs

The six-hour outage of Cerner's network late last month has raised fresh concerns about cloud hosting of patient records.

Cerner declined to say how many facilities were affected by the July 23 outage, which it attributed to "human error." IT health blog HISTalk, however, reported that the outage affected Cerner's entire network nationally and possibly internationally. The company serves about 9,300 facilities worldwide, including more than 2,600 hospitals, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Federal law requires providers and vendors both to have backup procedures. While some of the affected hospitals, like those in the Adventist Health system, reverted to using paper records, that did not give doctors access to patients' medical histories stored within the EHRs.

"As vendors and the federal government push for totally electronic systems the vulnerabilities of these hospitals to this kind of outage increases exponentially," Ross Koppel, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the safety and effectiveness of electronic medical records, told the Times. "The lack of access to previous patient records means that doctors were flying blind."

Some clients also were critical of Cerner's service during the outage. One comment to the HISTalk post said that communication was an issue, and that Cerner's support sites also were down during the outage.

A Cerner spokeswoman told the Times that it was reviewing its training and procedures to improve its response.

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which runs Cerner systems across more than 20 hospitals, experienced a 14-hour outage in December, according to the Times. However, the hospital had a backup system that enabled doctors and staff to continue accessing patient records.

A post published last week outlined some pros and cons of cloud computing. Among the pros listed were low capital costs and, ironically enough, more resources available for disaster recover and better response service. Among the cons mentioned were that rapid implementation often leads to poor implementation, and limited liability on the part of remote hosting vendors.

Storms that ravaged the East Coast earlier this year provide further evidence that disaster planning must be a priority. What's more, hospital officials in Joplin, Mo., have shared some lessons on disaster planning learned from the devastating tornado that hit the city in May 2011.

To learn more:
- read the HISTalk comment thread
- here's the Times story
- check out the piece