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caption: A military doctor sets up surgical tools
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A military doctor sets up surgical tools
Credit: Flickr Photo/US Army Africa (CC BY 2.0)/

How a military healthcare overhaul could have killed patients in Washington

Andy Hurst talks with Politico editor Arthur Allen about a new report from the Pentagon that found massive problems with the U.S. military's effort to modernize health records.

Why did the military want to make this change in the first place?

The old system is very clunky. It's rated one of the poorest electronic health records in the country. They would have Post-it’s all over their computers to remind them of things they couldn't really do in the computer system. It wasn't easy to access a patient's records if they were switching between civilian care and military care.

It was a slow system that needed modernization for some time. So about three years ago, they decided to go with a system that’s made by a company called Cerner.

This new system was first rolled out at four medical facilities here in the Northwest including Naval Station Bremerton. What happened?

It was pretty much an unmitigated disaster. There were at least 156 incident reports filed that were of a very serious nature. Any of those could be serious enough to result in a patient death. That could include something like the pharmacist getting the wrong order.

We don't know for sure whether there were any patient deaths, but it was an atmosphere that created a kind of terror among the doctors and nurses who were worried that they were going to kill somebody.

In fact, we heard of one physician who quit because she was worried that she'd never get out of her service there with her reputation intact.

Did this system reduce the number of patients that military doctors were able to see?

The bottom line is that in order to take care of these patients safely, they had to reduce the number they were seeing - by half, or sometimes as much as one-third. They had to send away patients. Some of them ended up going to civilian hospitals or private doctors rather than being seen in the military system.

How has the military responded to this report?

Their reaction was ‘yes it was serious, and boy we’re very grateful to these investigators for providing us this critical investigation. But things are getting better, and we're still going to be on schedule to finish the whole system around the world by 2022.’

The Department of Veterans Affairs is also considering implementing this same system. Is that likely to happen?

About a year ago, the VA decided to use the same system, but they put that decision on hold back in December. Now they've said they're going to make a decision by the end of the month. And from what I've heard they're going to go through with this.

That is a little bit shocking when you consider the problems they’ve had. But the people in the military say that they've learned lessons from this. And the VA hopes that's true. It certainly creates a lot of doubt about gigantic project. When you combine the VA and the military, you're talking about 20 million patients, hundreds of hospitals, and thousands of clinics.

The whole idea of this was to make really good software for our troops and veterans. And if it ends up being as disastrous as it has been, then we're we're really in for it.