Hundreds of patients in Calgary are being warned that their referrals for urology consultations were lost due to a technical problem involving a decommissioned fax line.
According to Alberta Health Services, last summer, when the Calgary zone joined a central booking system allowing patients to see the next available surgeon, doctors were told to use a new fax line to book referrals because the old one would no longer be used.
But it was recently discovered that referral requests continued to be made through the old line. Rather than being processed, those requests were sent to a digital folder that was automatically emptied at the end of each month.
At a media briefing on Friday, Dr. Mark Anselmo, the Calgary zone medical director for AHS, said that all referrals sent to the decommissioned fax line between Aug. 9 and Dec. 31, 2023, have been lost. They were able to retrieve 356 patient referrals sent between Jan. 1 and Jan. 24, 2024, when the problem was discovered.
He said one of the reasons the problem took so long to detect was that the sender of the referral would receive a return fax telling them their request had gone through.
"We did not know it was still accepting data," Anselmo said.
He said there's no way of knowing how many referrals were lost between August and December last year, but AHS hopes cross-referencing with physicians' records will help identify them.
"We do not know the total number of referrals in that time period that were sent. And this is why we're being transparent and open with all providers and patients to ensure that any referral sent … we can make sure that if they do have them we can cross-reference, " he said.
Anselmo said AHS isn't aware of similar problems with decommissioned fax lines being used for referrals in other areas of the health system, beyond urology, but they'll be checking, just in case.
"We're not going to take any chances and we're going to review all the other legacy fax lines across the organization," he said.
When asked about the possible health implications for the hundreds of patients who weren't able to access timely care because of this technical problem, Anselmo said AHS has "a huge amount of concern" and have added additional staff and physician resources to deal with the problem.
"We want to make sure that patients who are referred for urgent consults are triaged properly and seen quickly.… We are also ensuring that we are recording and following up on any patients whose care falls outside the normal windows," he said.
Patients with questions about the state of their urology referrals can call 1-877-720-0707. This applies to referrals made between Aug. 9, 2023, and Jan. 1, 2024.