Clinic preparedness key to surviving Optus collapse

Michelle Wisbey

8/11/2023 4:22:44 PM

Medical centres were among the 10 million victims of the telco’s nationwide outage, but backup systems helped keep the doors open.

Two receptionists sitting at medical centre desk.
The outage was first reported around 4.00 am on Wednesday, with some customers able to get back online by mid-afternoon.

Public transport was ground to a halt, banking was bungled, and businesses were left in the dark when Australia was plunged into chaos by Optus’s catastrophic failure.
The communications giant’s network collapsed around 4.00 am on Wednesday, leaving more than 10 million customers disconnected.
Optus engineers scrambled to urgently solve the unknown problem, which wreaked havoc on individuals, government systems, businesses – and multiple healthcare services.
Calls to triple zero were impacted, with Optus advising customers to use ‘alternate devices’ when seeking emergency assistance and all of the phone lines at Ramsay Health Care, which operates 73 private hospitals and day surgeries across Australia, were out of action.
Elsewhere, the triaging of mental health patients was impacted in South Australia, while the Canberra Hospital switch board, Maternity Assessment Unit and Access Mental Health Services phonelines were all down, as were communications at some Victorian hospitals.
Meanwhile, general practice was not immune to the collapse, with RACGP Vice President Dr Bruce Willett telling newsGP his Brisbane clinic had been slightly quieter than usual.
But he also pointed out that the outage was an important reminder of how preparedness is key to keep clinics running.
‘Because phones and internet are now so essential to what we do, we’ve also got Starlink as a backup, so we’ve got both available for the practice now,’ he said.
‘Billings are done through the internet, eScripts need internet access, prescriptions – so much of what we do requires internet access, so really it’s like having our arms and legs cut off.
‘It really is a big reminder that it’s important to have those manual backup systems where possible.’
It was a similar story at Sydney’s Miranda Family Practice, where Dr Ray Redden told newsGP the outage had only caused minor disruptions.
Around half of the clinic’s SMS appointment reminders were not received by patients, while they received fewer on-the-day bookings than usual.
‘A few people have actually contacted us by email, which is a little bit more disruptive than just ringing through on the phones at the front, and I’ve had one patient who was late getting here because she couldn’t ring the cab,’ Dr Redden said.
‘It goes to show how reliant we are on these communication systems.
‘We all need to think about backup options and plans A, B, and C when technology does go down, because it’s not the first time it’s happened.’
Writing into ABC online, patients said health was their biggest concern of the outage.
‘Now that medicine prescriptions are largely texted to me with a QR code, and eftpos isn’t working, it was a bit of a struggle this morning to pick up my medications,’ Lauren wrote.
However, by mid-afternoon, some customers reported getting back online – albeit with others still in the dark.
Optus chief executive Kelly Bayer Rosmarin told ABC Radio Sydney the telco would not rest until the service is back up and running.
‘We’re really, really sorry that this outage has occurred and we’re working to restore services for our customers as a priority,’ she said.
‘We had a number of hypotheses and each one so far that we’ve tested, and put in place new actions for, has not resolved the fundamental issue. So, we’re still working on it.’
RACGP Expert Committee – Practice Technology and Management member Dr David Adam told newsGP, as the world’s reliance on technology only increases, practices should ensure they are prepared for similar outages in the future.
‘Twenty years ago, a mobile phone outage wouldn’t be a problem for anyone really. Ten years ago it would have been irritating, but today we are increasingly dependent on this technology,’ he said.
‘Most practices will at least have backup mobiles to make urgent phone calls, and it’s unlikely that everyone in the practice will be with one provider.’
The cause of the outage is yet to be confirmed by Optus, but the company said some customers could be entitled to compensation.
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