Computer outages at hospitals and health-care centres across the province that have forced staff to revert to paper files, cancel some services and turn some patients away have been escalated to Service New Brunswick's "highest priority," says a spokesperson.

Technical staff believe they have zeroed in on the "root cause" of the problem wreaking havoc for the Horizon Health Network and Vitalité Health Network, SNB's director of communications Valerie Kilfoil told CBC News early Tuesday evening.

She did not elaborate or offer any estimate on how long it might take to fix.

"A substantial number of systems are impacted and teams have been working through the day and will continue to work throughout the evening to recover systems and ensure data integrity across systems is maintained."

The problem started around 6 a.m. Tuesday when Service New Brunswick's data centre in Saint John experienced a "partial outage," said Kilfoil.

"At 8:50, the incident was escalated to highest priority within SNB."

'Major outage' at Horizon

The Horizon Health Network is dealing with a "major outage," affecting "every conceivable department," confirmed Brenda Kinney, executive director for the Saint John area, which stretches from Sussex to St. Stephen.

Horizon's hardest-hit services include radiation oncology treatments, which are computer-operated, blood and specimen collection labs, community health centres and clinics, Kinney said.

'The longer it goes, the bigger the impact.' - Brenda Kinney, Horizon 

Nearly 100 radiation oncology patients who had appointments scheduled at the Saint John Regional Hospital, for example, had their appointments cancelled, she said.

But they will all be rescheduled within the next two or three days, she said.

So far, the impact on patient care has been "very minimal," said Kinney.

"As it progresses, it causes more challenges" because having to write things down takes longer and slows everything, she said.

"The longer it goes, the bigger the impact."

Plans are underway to bring in extra staff and possibly extend hours of operation to help with any backlog and to input data once the systems are restored to ensure electronic records are up to date, she said.

Vitalité Health Network officials did not respond to a request for an interview.

80-year-old's fast was pointless

John Bone, an 80-year-old with diabetes, wondered why the media or affected patients like him weren't notified.

He fasted for 13 hours to get some routine blood work done, but when he went to the Market Place Wellness Centre on Saint John's west side around 9 a.m., he was told he couldn't be served.

"They told me that all the computers were down. So I said, 'Well cant you just go the old-fashioned way and just write it down on a piece of paper in a file?'

"They said, 'No, we have to have a computer to put your name in and find out what everything is.'"

Bone and his wife of 50 years, Ann, who "wasn't impressed" about having to get up early to drive him, weren't pleased. Bone said he was "almost falling over" because of low blood sugar levels from fasting.  

Kinney could not speak to what Bone was told but did say switching to a paper-based system at some of the smaller centres, such as blood clinics, "slows things down to the extent that they really can only do priority patients … those that it's absolutely urgent that they have their blood tests done."

"In some areas, they did stop doing specimen collection altogether."

Affected patients will be rescheduled, but the scheduling system is also down, so staff could not immediately provide new appointments, said Kinney. Patients will be contacted at a later date," she said.

'Almost impossible' to notify patients

Kinney said she understands the frustration some patients may be feeling.

But it would be "very challenging … almost impossible," to contact the "hundreds and hundreds" of patients individually with existing resources, she said.

And without knowing how long the outage would last, the system could be back up and running by the time patients arrive for their appointments.

"We don't want to cancel a whole day if the system's only going to be down for a short period of time," Kinney said.

Most patients have been "quite understanding," she said. They know "we'll do our best to get their care done as soon as we're able to."

"It's definitely an inconvenience to everyone."

Horizon officials started noticing around 6 a.m. that "several" of its computer applications either weren't working or were intermittent, said Kinney.

Technicians, vendors on site

They were notified by their IT department through Service New Brunswick that they "in fact were experiencing a major outage," she said.

That's when staff were advised to go to manual processes, which is normal procedure during any computer downtime.

By mid-morning, vendors and SNB technical staff were onsite to conduct diagnostics and repairs, said Kilfoil.

The team is following the "incident management process," to resolve the issue, she said.

Service New Brunswick has been in regular communication with the regional health authorities, said Kilfoil, "and this will continue until the issue is fully resolved," she added.