Treatment for some patients at Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals across the country went awry last year because of software glitches in an electronic medical record (EMR) system, an Associated Press (AP) investigation disclosed.

They involved both data, such as lab results and vital signs, and doctors’ orders. As a result therapies were delayed or prolonged and wrong medication doses were administered, according to documents the wire service obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

Incidents were first reported in August, after the VA’s annual software upgrade was installed. Doctors reported that when they accessed patient files within 10 minutes of each other, data from the first patient displayed under the second patient’s name. Sometimes an order to stop IV treatments did not display at all.

The documents showed that at least one third of the VA’s 153 medical centers were affected.


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Although the problems were not fully corrected until December, AP found no evidence that any person was harmed. Stephen Warren, acting VA assistant secretary for information technology, credited alert physicians and several backup systems that allowed nurses to keep accurate tabs on their patients, AP reports. In addition, several alerts and interim safety measures were issued while repairs were under way.

The VA experience illustrates physician criticisms of EMR programs, which the federal government has been strongly promoting as essential to patient safety and as a deterrent to malpractice. The $787 billion economic stimulus package adopted in February includes $19 billion for EMR and sets a 2014 goal for every American’s medical records to be computerized.

“We know that health care is crippling businesses and making us less competitive, as well as breaking the banks of families all across America — and part of the reason is we’ve got the most inefficient health care system imaginable,” President Obama stated at a press conference.

“We’re still using paper. We’re still filing things in triplicate. Nurses can’t read the prescriptions that doctors have written out. Why wouldn’t we want to put that on an electronic medical record that will reduce error rates, reduce our long-term cost of health care, and create jobs right now?”

But many doctors are leery. Jeffrey A. Linder, MD, is an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, in Boston, who has studied EMR systems.

“There’s a lot of hype out there about electronic health records, that there is some unfettered good,” he told AP. “It’s a big piece of the puzzle, but they’re not magic. There is also a potential for unintended consequences.”