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Computer bug affects records at Bay Pines, other VA hospitals

ST. PETERSBURG — Bay Pines VA Medical Center was among dozens of veterans hospitals across the country affected by a software bug that caused medical records to occasionally display incorrect or misleading patient data.

The Department of Veterans Affairs says that about a third of its 153 medical facilities encountered problems, which in some cases caused patients to receive incorrect doses of medication. None of those mistaken doses occurred locally.

In two cases at Bay Pines, the VA said, incorrect data was displayed to caregivers, though the errors were quickly noted and neither patient was affected.

The VA, portraying the glitch as exceedingly rare, said the software bug harmed no veteran at any of its facilities.

"What we found was that the glitch that could occur didn't occur routinely," Faith Belcher, a spokeswoman for Bay Pines, said on Wednesday. "It was hit or miss, and didn't happen with all patient records. It was very sporadic."

No reports of problems occurred at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa, one of the busiest veterans hospitals in the nation.

The VA said nine veterans received incorrect doses of intravenous medication — including the blood thinner heparin, which at excessive doses can be fatal — at facilities outside Florida.

The computer bug emerged in August with an update of the VA's computerized records system. All problems were fixed by last month.

The computer bug caused some information to be matched with the wrong patient, including vital signs, medications and lab results.

In other, rarer cases, according to the VA, records failed to clearly show a doctor's stop order for medication.

The agency said it is implementing a more stringent system to ensure that new software updates don't have unanticipated consequences.

The VA did not notify patients, even in cases in which patients got incorrect doses.

The computer bug was exposed on Jan. 7 by the popular veterans blog VAWatchdog.org, after its founder, Vancouver, Wash., veteran Larry Scott, was tipped off by an agency employee.

Gail Graham, the VA's deputy chief officer for health information management in Washington, said the agency has a duty to inform patients only in cases in which harm is done.

"It was determined that no patients suffered harm as a consequence of this," Graham said.

Dr. Jacques Durr, a former Bay Pines physician fired on Nov. 7 — in retaliation, he says, for exposing patient safety issues — said the VA failed in its ethical duty to inform patients.

"They put keeping quiet before patient safety," Durr said.

Some veterans groups were just as critical.

"Being told that no patients were harmed still does not absolve the VA from responsibility to forewarn patients that something is amiss," said Veterans of Foreign Wars national commander Glen Gardner.

The disclosure comes at an awkward time for the VA. In Washington on Wednesday, the Senate opened a confirmation hearing for Eric Shinseki, President-elect Obama's choice as VA secretary.

And the disclosure also comes after embarrassing reports last year of VA workers shredding veteran claims documents across the nation, including at Bay Pines.

Many veterans have a jaundiced view of VA record keeping.

Richard Lane, 53, an Army veteran living in St. Petersburg, said he was stunned in 2006 to learn from his Bay Pines' doctor that a computerized medical file said he was dead.

"I was like, 'I'm not dead,' " he said. "I couldn't believe it."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5306.

Computer bug affects records at Bay Pines, other VA hospitals 01/14/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 15, 2009 12:26am]
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