'Don't mess with our health care': N.L. cyberattack stressing taxed health system

·3 min read

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — A cyberattack on Newfoundland and Labrador's health-care network had people sleeping on the floor of an overcrowded St. John's emergency room earlier this week, according to a patient who was waiting for care.

Elaine Pond said Wednesday she's grateful to have received care at the Health Sciences Centre following the cyberattack that had been detected over the weekend, adding that the damage to the province's IT network was placing an enormous stress on an already overburdened health system.

"Pick another province, pick another place — pick a corporation with actual money," Pond said when asked in an interview what she would say to the hackers. "Just don't mess with our health care. Please."

Health Minister John Haggie confirmed Wednesday the provincial health network's data centre has fallen victim to a "cyberattack."

"We are not yet clear on the total extent of the failures," he told reporters.

The attack was first discovered Saturday, affecting what Haggie described as the "two brains" behind the health network's data centre. Without access to such things as basic email, diagnostic images and lab results, the province's eastern health authority — which covers St. John's — is operating with pen and paper, and thousands of medical appointments have been cancelled.

Haggie wouldn't discuss the type of attack or whether data has been lost.

"Those involved in the attack may actually be monitoring what we are saying in media and on the floor of the (legislature)," he said. "It's very important, therefore, (that) we don't do or say anything that compromises the efforts underway to investigate and resolve this matter."

He assured residents that those needing acute care would get help.

Pond, 40, can vouch for that. She went to the Health Sciences Centre emergency room on Thursday, worried about persistent numbness, tingling and shooting pains in her leg. Pond was ultimately given an appointment for an ultrasound on Monday. The emergency room staff were concerned she had a blood clot, which made her case urgent, she said.

To get her results, Pond said she had to re-register in emergency and sit in the waiting room. Without access to email or online records, emergency room staff were operating on paper, keeping tallies of patients and hand-delivering physical copies of records and results, she said. Everything was slower and the room was overflowing, she said, adding that people were lying or sitting on the waiting room floor and in several hallways.

Some people were angry, others were crying, some were yelling at the reception team, she said. It was "awful," she added. "Like something from a movie."

Pond said she waited several hours before the receptionist told her the scan hadn't detected a clot. She said she went home rather than seeing the doctor for a followup, which she said would have meant another long wait on the emergency room floor, possibly overnight. She's not sure if or how her ultrasound results would be sent to her family doctor.

"I'm working from home, kind of in limbo with the same symptoms and things going on with absolutely no (resolution)," she said. "Taking it day by day, hour by hour, and hoping to God it isn't something that's going to seriously affect me."

Newfoundland and Labrador's health-care woes are widely known and documented. A report last spring from a provincial task force noted a "high use of hospitals" among an aging population with some of the worst health outcomes in the country. The province's medical association says around 99,000 residents are without a family doctor.

Pond said it was heartbreaking to see people working in a system that's already struggling and having to cope with the added stress of a cyberattack.

"These men and women are working around the clock, pen and paper in hand, no computer to use," she said. "You can only imagine how hard their job must be."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 3, 2021.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press

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