Physician viewpoint: WannaCry's hit to NHS is a 'wake-up call'

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Physicians must advocate for comprehensive IT security, Rachel Clarke, MD, and Taryn Youngstein, MD, wrote in a The New England Journal of Medicine op-ed.

Drs. Clarke and Youngstein — physicians at the Oxford (England) University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and London, England-based Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, respectively — discussed their experience practicing at the U.K. National Health Service during the WannaCry ransomware attack last month.

"With lurid headlines lighting up our smartphones it would have been easy for staff and patients to panic," they wrote. "Information technology has become the linchpin of everything we do, with most NHS hospitals and general practices now using electronic notes, imaging systems and drug-prescribing systems."

Some hospitals took to physical pen and paper to order tests and complete patient notes. However, many NHS practices were fully electronic, leading officials to cancel procedures and divert ambulances until it was safe to resume full business operation. "At one of the capital's biggest hospitals, the automated refrigerators used for dispensing blood products were shut down, compromising the capacity to conduct surgery safely," Drs. Clarke and Youngstein noted.

Drs. Clarke and Youngstein called this experience a "wake-up call" for physicians, who may not have considered the physical harm cybersecurity attacks can impose on patient safety.

"All healthcare workers now have a responsibility to educate ourselves about this emerging threat and demand that funds be made available to ensure that the software we use is as up to date as the medicines we prescribe," they concluded. "We wouldn't accept being told to use outdated equipment on our patients, and our now-critical IT should be no different."

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