UH rules out physical hack as cause of fertility clinic incident affecting 700 patients

Cleveland-based University Hospitals has ruled out "any inappropriate physical access" as the root cause of an incident at its fertility clinic earlier this month that affected the eggs and embryos of an estimated 700 patients, according to a statement from the health system.

A liquid nitrogen freezer at the UH Fertility Center, part of Beachwood, Ohio-based University Hospitals Ahuja Medical Center, malfunctioned sometime between the afternoon of March 3 and the morning of March 4, damaging 2,000-plus eggs and embryos. The incident resulted in several lawsuits filed against UH and multiple independent investigations into the fertility clinic by the Joint Commission and the Ohio Department of Health, among other agencies.

Officials said in a March 23 statement, obtained by Becker's Hospital Review, they have thus far ruled out a physical hack on UH's systems because the fertility clinic is secured through restricted keycard access and monitored record-keeping. UH said "a hack into the computer portions of the equipment is not likely, but we have not ruled it out completely," given a similar incident occurred at a fertility clinic in San Francisco during same time period.

As part of its own investigation, UH is examining various areas of the clinic, including its storage tank, alarm systems, security, liquid nitrogen issues and preventive maintenances. The health system has also purchased new storage tanks and alarms from a different vendor.

"Our primary concerns remain: protecting the embryos; supporting our patients; and completing a thorough root cause analysis. We continue to delve into the potential causes of this situation and develop new standards to be leaders in this area," the health system said.

UH physicians and medical staff have responded to more than 900 patient calls and have directly spoken with or seen an estimated 400 patients regarding their medical needs following the incident. Patients who stored eggs or embryos will have the opportunity to receive an in vitro package tailored to their clinical needs, and the health system will refund storage fees and waive subsequent storage fees for seven years.

UH said it will not comment publicly on any pending litigation, but is "aware … UH has been named in a number of lawsuits, some of which include allegations of a class action."

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