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UPDATED: IT systems down at Waikato Hospital & DHB, 'cybersecurity incident' confirmed

By Sara Barker, 19 May 2021

On the morning of Tuesday 18 May, Waikato Hospital began turning outpatients away from scheduled appointments after a major outage affected its IT and phone systems.

One of Techday's editorial team members was caught in the middle of the chaos at Waikato Hospital around 9am, as hospital staff had emergency meetings and resorted to the manual processing of patient documentation, including appointment details, patient history, and other important files. 

X-ray machines were operational for a short while before they were turned off because there was no effective way to save x-ray details to files and hospital records.

Patients were left confused and waiting in reception areas, however, hospital staff were proactive and communicated the issue to those affected.

There were rumours of possible malicious intent against the hospital, with mention of a ransomware attack, which was confirmed later in the day (see the update timeline below).

The previous weekend, Ireland's Health Service Executive (HSE) was hit by a variant of the Conti ransomware, which resulted in a major shutdown of IT systems and demanded a ransom of $20 million. An attack on Ireland's Department of Health soon followed. 

We will update this story with more details as they emerge.

Updated - 11am, 24 May

The disruption looks set to roll into a second week as the DHB and external security firms including the GCSB investigate the incident.

"We expect this work to continue into the coming week and possibly beyond, while we restore our services using a carefully phased approach," said DHB chief Kevin Snee yesterday.

"This is a significant cybersecurity event, which will take some time to remediate and investigate. We have a substantial team of specialists working around the clock to bring the DHB’s services back.

"Investigations into this type of cybersecurity event are challenging and complex. Waikato DHB continues to engage with experts across both the government and private sector including world-leading specialists.

Because of the nature of this incident, the DHB is not able to provide detailed comment as it is now under criminal investigation."

Updated - 5pm, 19 May

Waikato DHB has set up a dedicated phone line for enquiries. The number is 0800 276 216.

Updated - 10:22am, 19 May

A statement from the DHB says the IT team worked throughout the night to bring systems back online and is making 'good progress', however all DHB hospitals continue to be affected.

"We are currently working with other government departments to investigate the cause, but are working on the theory that the initial incursion was via an email attachment. A forensic investigation is ongoing."

The DHB has business continuity plans in place, however many elective surgeries and outpatient clinics have been postponed or reduced.

"Of 102 elective surgeries planned for inpatients at Waikato Hospital today, 73 are still going ahead. As a result of yesterday’s disruptions, six elective surgeries were cancelled, while 95 went ahead."

"Anyone with queries about the urgency of their outpatient appointment should contact their GP."

Emergency departments remain open for emergencies only. For non-urgent medical issues, people should contact their GP, urgent care centre, or Healthline.

"We would also like to thank all of our healthcare partners, including Māori and Pacific providers, GPs, St John, our other DHBs who are providing support to our patients during this time."

Updated - 8:26am, 19 May: A video posted yesterday by Waikato DHB chief Kevin Snee says that hospital emergency wards are only seeing urgent cases.

The DHB has also provided support numbers for those who need mental health support. Freephone or text 1737 any time of the day or night to speak to a registered mental health professional. Contact your usual health worker or GP for assistance. Or in a crisis, please phone 0800 50 50 50.

Updated - 12:59pm, 18 May: Waikato DHB has confirmed it has experienced a 'cybersecurity incident'. The Board posted this statement on its Facebook page:

"We have engaged external assistance to address a cybersecurity incident affecting our Information Services environment.

We are at the early stages of identifying what has happened, and are unable to provide further detail at this stage while we investigate the incident. The appropriate government authorities have been advised of the situation.

We are uncertain how long it will take to resolve this situation, but we are working hard to get our services back online.

The care of our patients remains our top priority, and we are managing our services to ensure they are kept safe and receive the appropriate care."

Updated - 11:12am, 18 May: The issue is affecting all hospitals under the Waikato District Health Board, including Waikato, Thames, Tokoroa, Te Kuiti, and Taumarunui.

The DHB has posted the following statement:

"Waikato DHB is currently experiencing a full outage of its Information Services.

A Coordinated Incident Management System has been established to resolve the situation as soon as possible. We are currently investigating the cause of this outage.

We want to assure the public that all inpatients are continuing to receive quality care from our staff.

Unfortunately this has meant some outpatient clinics may be cancelled as a result of this outage. Those affected will be contacted to rebook their appointments.

Please keep Waikato Hospital’s Emergency Department for emergencies only. This is to ensure we can continue to provide critical services to our patients.

If you need immediate or urgent help, please continue to call 111. If it is not an emergency, please phone Healthline on 0800 611 116, visit your GP or local urgent care centre.

Our landline phone services are also currently down, including the main Waikato DHB number. For those trying to contact their loved ones in hospital, please consider using personal mobiles where possible."

Updated - 10:40am, 18 May: Stuff has run a story stating that members of the public are unable to get through to the hospital's phone lines.

Original article posted - 10:35am, 18 May.

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