NHS computer systems could be responsible for hundreds of deaths each year

The NHS uses computers across its network for various reasons, including storing patient records, making appointments and for running medical equipment like dialysis machines and MRI scanners. However, according to experts, a lot of these systems are “low quality” and could be responsible for the deaths of up to 900 patients every year in the UK.

According to Harold Thimbleby, professor emeritus of geometry at Gresham College in London and professor of computer science at Swansea University, a lot of the devices used are “susceptible to cyber attacks” – putting patients’ lives in danger.

Prof Thimbleby, along with his colleague Martyn Thomas, professor of information technology at Gresham College have estimated that computer problems could be causing the deaths of hundreds of patients a year.

Prof Thimbleby said: “If you go into a hospital there isn’t a good word to describe how bad stuff in a hospital is and how unaware people are in hospitals of the low quality: they’re stuck with it. They’re over-worked, they’ve got a job to do and understanding the computer systems isn’t part of their job so it’s understandable.

“There are computers in the sterilisation unit in the basement, there are computers in the MRI scanner, there are computers everywhere keeping the NHS running. And we think there are 100 to 900 computer-related deaths per year and we think that is a big underestimate.”

“Some recognised disasters in Britain: Piper Alpha had 167 deaths and there was a public inquiry; Ladbroke Grove, the rail crash in Paddington had 31 deaths and there was a public inquiry; Grenfell, the fire last year had 71 years, and there is a public inquiry. Why don’t we have a public inquiry in the safety of hospital software?”

Professor Thomas also expressed his concerns about the potential errors that could be made by inadequate computer systems. He said that research has shown that 8% of all deaths in US hospitals are now caused by errors, and hospitals in the UK could be heading the same way if action isn’t taken soon.

If the percentage of death seen in America was replicated in the UK, it would mean there being “88,000 in the NHS every year caused by preventable adverse events in hospitals”. He added that a “significant proportion” of negligence claims made against the NHS can be put down to “bad computer systems, buggy computer systems, leading professionals to make mistakes.”

He said: “Badly designed computer systems can be at the heart of, can trigger or contribute to, all the causes of harm that are reported as serious adverse events. Even if only 1% of them were computer related that would be a significant number of deaths. On the American figures we’d be looking at 880 deaths. “

“On the NHS’s own figures it would be 108 deaths and serious injuries a year caused by bad computer systems. We think the number is probably a lot higher. That’s a lot of money going into liability claims, it’s a lot of trauma to patients and their families and it is a lot of trauma for staff because the staff get blamed and it really isn’t their fault.”

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