A five-day IT failure forced GP practices across Kent and Medway to raise alerts about patient safety, as the ICB told them to ‘return to pen and paper’ until the issues were resolved.
The outage, which began on 16 March, was reportedly caused by a ‘faulty firewall’ and led to the area’s first GPAS black alert declaration, as GPs reported risks to patient safety and an ‘utter breakdown’ of their services.
Kent LMC said it affected all clinical and non-clinical internet reliant systems, meaning practices lost access to email services, EMIS capability was ‘vastly reduced’, and the ability to manage prescriptions and results was impacted.
As well as core patient-facing services, GPs reported issues with meeting QOF and payroll year end reporting as a result of the IT failure.
In their GPAS reports, GPs also said their phone lines were affected and they could not access accuRx, Kent’s Document Organisation, Referral and Information Service (DORIS), and Docman, which is used for clinical letters and discharge summaries.
They also said that NHS Kent and Medway ICB had issued guidance to GP practices during the outage which suggested they return to ‘pen and paper’ in order to continue providing services.
Kent LMC has been in discussion with the ICB about ‘what measures can be taken to help deal with the backlog of work and how practices should be recompensed’.
Kent and Medway’s GPAS return for the week commencing 20 March had a 56% return rate and was rated black overall, which means the ‘practice may fail within one month’ and ‘urgent system intervention’ is needed.
A spokesperson for Kent LMC said: ‘The LMC have worked with the ICB over the event and the ICB have now resolved the IT issues. All practice systems are now functioning.
‘Assurance is being sought that this never happens again. We are continuing to support practices as they manage the backlog.’
One of the comments from practices on the return said: ‘The catastrophic failure by the ICB to safeguard GP practice’s connectivity has led to an utter breakdown of the services we can provide.’
It added: ‘The length of time it has taken for the connectivity issue to be resolved is unacceptable and someone needs to be held accountable.
‘Furthermore, the advice provided in one of the General Practice Bulletins suggested that we may have to revert to a paper based system is downright insulting and ridiculous.
‘Complaints from patients are coming in thick and fast about the lack of service. It is unsustainable for any GP practice to operate with any level of efficiency if we are not supported by the ICB.’
A spokesperson for NHS Kent and Medway ICB said: ‘The last few days have been challenging because of a problem affecting internet access. This has now been resolved.
‘The issue, caused by a faulty firewall, did not affect the NHS network, which is used to access clinical systems such as patient records and issuing prescriptions.
‘We would also like to thank practice staff for their patience while we worked as quickly as possible to fix this complex problem and restore access.’
Full internet access was restored for practices on Tuesday 21 March after several fixes were applied.
A recent RCGP survey highlighting the mounting pressures on general practice found that 42% of GPs and practice staff say their IT suppliers and support services are not for purpose.
As part of NHS England’s new contract for 2023/24 announced earlier this month, practices must procure cloud-based telephony once their current telephone contracts expire in order to provide ‘greater functionality for practices and patients’.