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Amid cybersecurity crisis at Ascension hospitals, workflows are disrupted

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Ascension is one of the largest health care systems in the country, and it's still dealing with the consequences of a ransomware attack that happened two weeks ago. Health care systems hold a lot of sensitive data on patients, and they are big, well-funded businesses, and these two factors make them increasingly appealing targets for cyberattacks. Olivia Aldridge of member station KUT in Austin has been reporting on the Ascension attack and joins us now with the latest. Good morning, Olivia.

OLIVIA ALDRIDGE, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So what happened to Ascension hospitals in this hack?

ALDRIDGE: Ascension representatives say they first noticed some unusual activity on some of the various technology networks that they use on May 8. Turns out they'd experienced a ransomware attack, which is basically a kind of cyberattack where malware is used to essentially capture data files and hold them for ransom. So in the wake of this, they're unable to access some of their electronic health records systems. Patients can't log into the system to see their own records or connect with their doctors virtually. Some phone systems are down, as well as other systems that they use to order tests, medications and procedures, and this is a nationwide problem because Ascension is in 19 U.S. states and D.C., and any of the hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, other facilities that use those systems I mentioned are being affected.

FADEL: So how is it affecting hospital operations?

ALDRIDGE: So while staff can't access those electronic records, they're having to do everything on paper by hand. A nurse who works in the NICU at a hospital in Austin said this means that staff are writing down orders for medication, imaging and labs at the bedside, and then those paper requests are being delivered by hand to other departments, so that's all taking longer to process. There are delays at every step, and that means it takes doctors longer to be able to order those next steps and care for patients. And I talked to Kris Fuentes at Ascension Seton Medical Center in Austin. She's a veteran nurse, so she remembers paper charts, but she said the hospital just wasn't prepared for this abrupt switch.

KRIS FUENTES: It's like we went back 20 years, but not even with the tools we had then, so it's a little scary.

ALDRIDGE: During all this, Ascension facilities, they're still operating, but the organization has acknowledged that there are some delays and that some folks might get a call saying an appointment has been postponed or rescheduled. And it's also hitting the system's pharmacies really hard, so people are facing some hurdles getting their prescriptions.

FADEL: And what's Ascension doing to try to deal with all this?

ALDRIDGE: There is an ongoing investigation into how this happened and how to fix it. They're working with cybersecurity experts from a few different firms, and they've looped in federal organizations. That includes the FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

FADEL: And it sounds like a lot of privacy could be compromised. What is Ascension telling patients?

ALDRIDGE: So at this point, they haven't made any announcements about what patient data might have been affected, but they've said that they'll reach out to people if they determine that their data was compromised. And they also still don't have a timeline for when patients and their doctors and nurses can expect things will be back to normal, even two weeks into this.

FADEL: Member station KUT's Olivia Aldridge. Thanks, Olivia.

ALDRIDGE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF IKEBE SHAKEDOWN'S "THE BEAST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Olivia Aldridge
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