HSE glitch could have seen patients given the wrong results

A leading computer scientist has called the glitch an "unbelievable" programming error

HSE glitch could have seen patients given the wrong results

Image: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Updated: 13:05

A leading computer scientist has warned that a glitch identified in the HSE computer system suggests the technology is not being properly monitored.

It emerged this morning that the computer glitch may have led to thousands of patients getting the wrong results from a range of scans, including x-rays and CT scans.

The faulty software may have led to some 25,000 people receiving unnecessary treatments.

The HSE has insisted the error poses a 'relatively low risk' to patients and has promised alternative treatment for anyone who needs it.

Unbelievable error

However, on Newstalk's High Noon, Professor Noel Sharkey, co-founder for the foundation for responsible robotics, said the glitch is an "unbelievable error" and warned that there should always be human oversight of large automated systems and programmes.

He said that once programmes reach a certain size they are extremely difficult to test:

"You can't do what you call formally verifying them," he said. "That means that you can't really test them in a mathematical way."

"You have to run them and see if they work essentially.

"So how do you work that when you have got a massive domain like medical health? How do you test every possibility?"

He said the issue highlights the need for greater oversight:

"This is something that I have been warning about for quite a while," he said. "The idea of not having a human oversight when you are running important safety-critical programmes."

"There should always be a human who checks these things  and that should be built in."

Computer glitch

The problem with the HSE system was linked to scans held at the HSE's National Integrated Medical Imaging System (NIMIS).

The €40m project provides electronic radiology systems for 35 hospitals.

Based at Dr Steevens’ Hospital in Dublin, the system is designed to allow doctors to electronically view their patient’s diagnostic images.

It emerged this morning that the system was incapable of recognising the 'less than' symbol (<) - making symptoms appear worse than they actually are.

For instance, if a scan showed that a patient had a narrowing of the arteries of '<50%' - the system recorded it wrongly as '50%.'

The error was discovered by a radiologist last Friday and the NIMIS system has now replaced the '<' symbol with the words 'less than.'

It is believed reports on paper, and those sent electronically to GPs, were not affected.

Clear communication

Stephen McMahon is a spokesman for the Irish Patients Association. He told Newstalk Breakfast patients affected need to be identified.

"The system itself - NIMIS, National Integrated Medical Imaging System - was really a great development in our Irish healthcare system insofar as doctors in different hospitals, and even in their homes, could see test results and make decisions and give staff instructions on what to do.

"What actually happed was the 'less than sign' that many people would be familiar with was missing when it was recorded into the system."

"The other really important thing here is that we're becoming more and more dependent on technology - and therefore we need more and more vigilance.

"It took six years for someone to pick up that we have a problem here.

"Our concern is for the tens of thousands of patients this morning waking up to this news, that the GPs are informed of how to convey the information to them if they do have these concerns and that their fears are alleviated.

"They need to really communicate and identify those patients ASAP."

Additional reporting: Jack Quann, Michael Staines